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5 Things United Needs to Fix for Me to Stay

April 11, 2019
13 min read
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As the editor at TPG responsible for United and Star Alliance coverage, I fly the carrier quite a bit. I've also been a member of its loyalty program since before I began my journalism career — dating back to the days of Continental OnePass (and then some).

I even managed to earn 1,000,000 Lifetime Miles, which means my status will never fall below Premier Gold, even if I never buy a single United flight ever again. And it's great that I'll be able to fall back on that, since — following the airline's latest announcement, and a few that came before — my days of requalifying for top-tier 1K may soon come to an end.

Earning lifetime status means I'll never fall below Gold.

Last Friday — the day companies typically reserve for layoffs, negative earnings guidance and other impactful news — United Airlines detailed upcoming changes to its MileagePlus program, including the very disappointing decision to remove award charts (and therefore any point of reference) for its own United-operated flights. (Don't worry — I've archived them all here.)

While the head of MileagePlus, Luc Bondar, framed the decision to remove the program's award chart as a customer-friendly move intended to make redemptions simpler and more accessible, for loyalists who didn't have any trouble navigating United's incredibly straightforward interface (below), it feels more like a slap in the face, aimed at eliminating all transparency so the airline, like Delta, can be free to make changes whenever it wishes — without any warning at all.

While some travelers are justifiably frustrated by United's latest move — perhaps even eager to find a new airline to call home — I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I'm going to continue flying United throughout 2019, since I'm already on track to earn Premier 1K status through 2020. Whether or not I'll actually be able to utilize those perks next year depends on the airline's ability to address the five concerns I'll outline below.

1. Keep charts around for partner awards

This is very much top-of-the-list for me. While I do redeem miles for United-operated flights on occasion, I tend to use MileagePlus to earn from United travel, and then turn around and redeem those miles for travel on the airline's long list of partners, which tend to offer better availability than United itself.

I've redeemed United miles for business- or first-class travel on Swiss, Lufthansa, TAP Air Portugal, Thai and a handful of other carriers over the years, for example. In fact, for every lie-flat United flight I've booked with miles, I've probably traveled on 10 with partners. So — for me, at least — it's partner redemptions that really matter most.

United has confirmed that it doesn't have plans to remove partner award charts (for now) and a move to dynamic redemption pricing would be a bit more challenging from a technical perspective, since the airline may need to take partner inventory into account. If the airline does remove charts for partner awards, though, or otherwise increases saver rates beyond current levels, MileagePlus will have far less value to me.

2. Limit basic economy to lower fares

What is basic economy, you ask? Well, that depends on who you ask. For customers, basic economy is confusing and inconvenient. I see it almost every time I fly — customers without checked bags forced to queue up for an agent since they can't check in with the United app, families separated because seats are assigned at random (and agents who refuse to move around flyers traveling together, but who purchased separate tickets).

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Of course, the experience you'll actually have is in stark contrast to the United employee perspective, all the way up to Oscar Munoz, United's CEO. He even begins his video introducing basic economy with a pledge, saying "It's time to refocus on winning back our customers. Across the spectrum."

Seconds later, as upbeat music plays in the background, Munoz says "... I'm excited to introduce a brand-new product called basic economy. We will not only be more flexible when it comes to price, we'll also be more efficient operationally by foregoing pre-assigned seating, priority boarding, upgrading and the option for last-minute changes." In other words, there's only upside here, according to Munoz. I'm not so sure the gate agents forced to deal with a half dozen spread-out families, plus a handful of frustrated elites whose employers won't cover the $60 buy-up, will agree.

Understanding the implications of purchasing one of these fares, I do everything I can to avoid it — in the future, that'll likely mean flying a different airline. That said, I do think there's room for basic economy, too. Take the one-way fare from New York (LGA) to Chicago (ORD), below.

$54 is incredibly low, and clearly intended to compete with Spirit, which offers an identical $54 bag-free fare. But once you buy out of United basic economy, or choose to add a carry-on bag, American, Delta and JetBlue end up offering the most attractive pricing. Still, as a Premier 1K, I'd pay an extra 10 bucks for access to free Economy Plus seating, and a shot at a first-class upgrade.

Let's check out another route, famous for its bargain-basement fares. While JetBlue's offering a regular fare for less than the cost of United's basic, Delta's $151 one-way rate is indeed for basic economy. Delta still includes a carry-on bag, though.

Once I add a carry-on, United's one-way, which departs right around the same time, costs almost twice as much as Delta's. Even as a happy elite, this is probably a no-go.

After piecing together a round-trip, United basic economy seems even less competitive.

Why's that? Well, Delta offers basic economy on this route as well, but Delta's version includes a free rolling carry-on bag. Even after spending the $60 to buy up with Delta, I'd still be saving roughly $80 over United's bag-free basic economy. Not to mention that Delta's flight timing would work much better with my schedule.

But what happens when the fare climbs above $400, approaching United basic economy territory? Delta doesn't offer basic economy at all — its lowest-priced option is for a fully changeable "K" fare, with free seat assignments, upgrade options and more.

I could go on and on about United basic economy, but I'll move on. For the full scoop, see Katie Genter's post, How to Survive Basic Economy on United Airlines.

3. Improve service across the board

I've had mediocre service on most airlines I've flown — even in first class on Lufthansa or Singapore, from time to time. Flight attendants have bad days, just like everyone else, and sometimes those bad days just happen to coincide with a flight I've selected for review.

Now, I've encountered a lot of bad service on United, but I also fly UA more than any other carrier. And crews tend to be especially surly on domestic airlines — it's almost part of the culture, as Emirates was more than happy to highlight in this classic Jennifer Aniston ad:

Now, I've come to terms with the fact that United's planes don't have showers or bars, and I'd never in my wildest dreams expect to find one. But they do have "signature cocktails," and flight attendant call buttons.

I've been fortunate enough to spend a decent amount of time in the airline's Polaris business-class cabin, and — while inconsistent, the service has generally been quite good. The same certainly couldn't be said for my Premium Plus flight from Newark to Hong Kong (HKG), though, just a day after United's new premium-economy service officially launched.

My unanswered call button. Photo by Zach Honig.

As I explained in the review, "United calls its new product Premium Plus, but there wasn't anything premium about the service, with the crew simply treating the forward three rows as an extension of the economy cabin. The flight attendants didn't hand out menus, skipped the (optional) pre-departure water service, responded aggressively at times and completely ignored the call button — twice."

In the end, we ended up awarding the service 10 points out of the allotted 25. I had submitted the review with a lower rating, but after considering comparable products and experiences on other carriers, a score of 10/25 is where the edit team landed. It certainly wasn't good service, but I suppose it could have been worse. But good or even great service is what United needs to provide — and it needs to be consistent.

4. Add confirmed-upgrade seats

My favorite benefit of Premier 1K status is United's Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) — and to a lesser extent, Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs), for domestic and regional flights — that enable flyers to book economy, then confirm a seat in business class, ideally right when they book.

As we learned last year, the process of earning these certificates changed in 2019 — now, Premier 1K members can only earn a total of four RPUs, while six GPUs are awarded upon meeting the requirements for 1K, with one more deposited in a flyer's account for each 25,000 Premier-Qualifying Miles earned in a calendar year. I walk through the full implications of this change here.

Many flyers shrugged off the change — you need to actually find upgrade space in order to take advantage, and while you need to use a certificate to have any shot at an upgrade for long-haul international flights, most regional routes are eligible for complimentary upgrades, which don't require certificates at all.

United needs to make those Global certificates easier to redeem, though, by adding more confirmed-upgrade seats to popular long-haul flights. With a fair amount of flexibility, I can find confirmed space at booking (see this post for details on how that's done), but "PZ" (instant-upgrade) seats are notoriously challenging to find, leading travelers to give them away en masse at the end of the year.

5. Improve United Clubs, especially at Newark

Newark (EWR) is my home airport, but it could just as easily become LaGuardia (LGA) or JFK. It's Newark for now, though — it's United's largest East Coast hub, and the airport I find myself at most often.

I love the airline's Polaris Lounge, but I've only been in a few times — access is restricted to customers flying in long-haul business class, in United Polaris or on a Star Alliance partner (where a first-class ticket will get you in as well).

A pop-up United Club at Newark. Photo by Zach Honig.
A pop-up United Club at Newark. Photo by Zach Honig.

The rest of the time — with access courtesy of the airline's co-branded premium card — it's the United Club for me. The airline technically has three in Terminal C alone. Two are considered "pop-up" lounges, though, including one that's been open since 2017. I've heard rumblings that a permanent United Club is in the works, but for now, your options are limited to:

  • Permanent location near gate 74 (open 4:30am-10:30pm)
  • Pop-up location near gate 124 (open 5:00am-10:00pm)
  • Pop-up location near gate 93 (open 2:30pm-7:30pm)
Part of the food selection at a pop-up United Club.
Part of the pop-up food selection at EWR. Photo by Zach Honig.

As you may have noticed, that last location is only open for five hours a day — intended to help ease congestion during the Europe-bound evening rush. There's also a permanent location in Terminal A, but it's only easily accessible to passengers on regional-jet flights.

United has been working to improve the food and beverage options at many of its lounges, and some of the physical spaces are quite nice as well. I rounded up my favorites in a post, The 5 Best United Clubs in the World, including the top domestic location, at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It's clear that the airline's been focusing its efforts on Polaris, though, and since I rarely have access to the carrier's top-notch business lounge, it's the United Clubs that really need some love.

Update: United shared the following comment, but the carrier's unable to confirm timing for the Newark location: "In addition to the four new United Clubs opening this year, including the brand new United Club at LaGuardia opening this summer, planning is underway for a new United Club at New York/Newark in Terminal C and a new United Club at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu."

Bottom Line

If United doesn't begin addressing these concerns by the time I need to start re-qualifying for status in 2020, I'm planning to spread my wings far and wide, booking flights based on schedule and fare, rather than focusing on one carrier in an attempt to maintain top-tier status — an ever-difficult goal. While I don't see myself running over to AA, I've had great experiences flying Delta and JetBlue, and I may even aim to re-earn Mosaic next year.

This certainly isn't a decision I'm going to make lightly. I've invested a lot as a United flyer, I have a large balance of miles, and I genuinely love the airline's "true" Polaris business class, especially when I get to spend time at the lounge and manage to get good service onboard.

One thing's for certain even now, though — as long as I can help it, I'll no longer be paying the $60 round-trip (or more) required to buy up from United's wide-reaching flyer-unfriendly basic economy. On that front, United's doing a terrible job competing with American, Delta and JetBlue, and I'm not getting enough extra value when I buy up on UA.

Are you questioning your loyalty, too? Let us know how you're feeling about United's recent changes in the comments below.