Outrageous Outrages Shedding logical light on ridiculous and annoying things

United Airlines Downgrades its Upgrades

Posted on March 27, 2010

Ahh, the good old days. Long gone.

Yet another loss for the casual air traveler, this one brought to us by United Airlines.  If you've ever flown more than casually, you're probably aware that you don't have to pay First Class prices for a First Class seat.  Most major US airlines have loyalty programs--I'm sure you've heard of the concept of earning miles.  Airline loyalty programs go way beyond miles, however, with a number of perks for frequent fliers designed to make their lives more comfortable.  One of the most popular involves getting your seat upgraded.  Thanks to United's new Unlimited Domestic Upgrade program which offers unlimited free upgrades, getting a better seat on United Airlines  just got much, much--harder.

What is a UDU?

A UDU, or Unlimited Domestic Upgrade, is a free upgrade given to qualified United Mileage Plus members.  It replaces the use of 500-mile coupons, also known as e500's, for one-class upgrades on domestic flights.  Customers with a status of Premier or higher flying a United fare on United metal will automatically have a UDU-based upgrade submitted on their behalf at time of purchase.  More details can be found on the United UDU web page.  That will give you the details and a lovely all-is-good-in-the-world positive spin, but read on for the outrageous details they don't tell you on their site.

But wait, its unlimited!!  And its free!!  What is bad about that?

I consider myself to be a loyalty program expert.  I accumulated over 800,000 miles on American Airlines in just over 2 years.  I never sat in coach, never paid for first.  I just switched back to United Airlines last August, and earned Premier Executive (aka 1P, or 50,000+ ass-in-the-air miles in a calendar year) in those 5 months.  So far this year I've almost re-qualified for my 1P, and am on my way to 1K+ (over 100,000 ass-in-the-air miles in a calendar year).  Like AA, I usually sit in First Class on United too.  That is, until the UDU program started last week.  Let me start by explaining what it replaced.  United had a system where you could earn 500-mile coupons and Regional Upgrades based on how much you flew.  If you wanted to upgrade a flight you could spend 1 coupon per 500 flight miles, meaning a flight from SAN to IAD required 5 coupons.  You could buy extra coupons as well and you could also use Regional Upgrades, good for the entire leg.  The more you fly, the more of each you got for free.  If you were out of both and wanted to save money, you could always elect to spend miles for your upgrade if you must.

The new UDU program changed all that.  No more 500 mile coupons, at least not for Elite members.  These are people who fly at least 25,000 miles in a year.  United's ranks are:

  • General Member
  • Premier Associate (paid or gifted)
  • Premier (25,000+ miles flown)
  • Premier Executive (50,000+ miles flown)
  • 1K (100,000+ miles flown)
  • Global Services (invite-only for top 1% of customers based on revenue)

This is really confusing, but here's what I'm outraged about.  With the new system, the same people will always get upgraded whether they want to or not.  Its time to get on a plane.  EVERY Elite member from Premier up is automatically put on the upgrade list.  The upgrade list clears by status from Global Services on down to Premier.  Then, and only then, can Premier Associate and General Members try to work their way into an upgraded seat.  Best of luck to you.  Fact is, so many people are at the Global Services and 1K list that on many popular flights there are 1K members who get passed over.  Premier and Premier Executive don't even stand a chance.

Up until UDU, getting upgraded had a certain cost.  Business travelers, the largest percentage of high elites that fly, would often sit satisfied in coach when they fly alone, saving their equity for when they take long trips or vacations with their family.  That's what I sometimes do myself--I can't even count the number of times my family of 4 sat in First Class.  Now that there's no cost to upgrading, however, the high elites will be more than happy to accept the upgrade every time.  Are you a Premier or Premier Executive who occasionally enjoyed an upgrade by spending e500's?  Sorry!  Those seats will be filled by people who could care less what class of service they're in.  Outrageous!

Sure, Global Services members spend the most money.  Next is most likely 1K, and on down.  It makes sense to want to reward the people who pay your bills.  The thing is, everyone who flies more than casually gets a certain satisfaction from getting an upgrade from time-to-time.  Its part of what keeps the Premier member flying.  What happens when they have absolutely no hope of getting an upgrade?  My guess is they go fly with someone else.  Continental and US Air, for example, have largely the same routes as United, and most people outside of a few key cities have at least one alternative available.  Is this enough to cost United customers?  Most certainly.  I don't know how many it will be, but the buzz on Flyer Talk is anything but positive, and that's where nearly every high elite goes to hang out.  Frankly the only people who seem to like UDU are the Global Services members.

You can still spend your miles on an upgrade, and perhaps you'll get to skip ahead of a few UDU hopefuls.  You might even get a seat.  But the days of frequent domestic United upgrades without burning through your miles are over for most people.  And yes, even though I'm set to hit 1K this year and will probably be "that guy" who almost always gets a UDU, I'd trade it in a heartbeat to go back to the old system.  Because frankly I know 1K and Global Services are a minority for United, meaning the other 100-200 people on the plane not only pay much more than we do, but won't be quite as happy, which could create financial trouble once people realize they're treated better elsewhere.  I guess the only thing I can ask now is if anyone wants to go halfsies on a Gulfstream?

Image courtesy of www.Copyright-free-photos.org.uk

Posted by Reed

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  1. Another example of companies screwing the people who make up the bulk of their customers. Hopefully people voting with their wallets will teach them a lesson, but I wouldn’t hold my breath over it. In many different sectors we are seeing loyal customers punished by the very companies they support. Has the corporate world gone mad?

  2. Haven’t seen a new post in a while! Hope all is well and I am looking forward to reading more!

    • Hi Heather,

      I spent the last week doing some travel. I certainly have some things to blog about and will get my next post up later today. 7 flights in 7 days for over 10,500 miles–I have some stories…

  3. today’s airlines are in the business of herding rather than transporting passengers.


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