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From 1998 to 2009 I did a lot of traveling on United Airlines. For several of those years, I had Premier 1K status (100,000 miles flown per year) and I’m close to Million Miler status. You know how some people say that they hate traveling? I loved it, and United Airlines was a big reason why. The company had great international service and an extremely generous frequent flyer program. These days, United Airlines is a shell of its former self and CEO Jeff Smisek is largely to blame.
The biggest reason why I was a loyal United Airlines customer was the Mileage Plus program. The company awarded its best customers with top-tier benefits. Complimentary upgrades — hugely important on international flights — were plentiful and easy to get. Jeff Smisek doesn’t believe in rewarding loyal customers with upgrades. He believes in selling them. Upgrades that were once available for free to top-tier frequent flyers on United Airlines are now sold to everyone, regardless of status. This makes upgrading much more difficult and more of a crapshoot (especially considering that you now have to buy a higher fare just to use an upgrade instrument).
But wait, there’s more! Jeff Smisek has also slashed benefits at every level of United Airlines’ frequent flyer program. The lowest level, Premier Silver, is next to useless. The once generous benefits to Million Miler status — which costs a lot of money to attain — have been slashed as well. Even the lofty Premier 1K status isn’t as powerful as it used to be. It seems like United Airlines is only interested in rewarding its Global Services customers, which is an invite-only program offered to customers the purchase several business class fares every year.
Essentially, Jeff Smisek is taking the short money by selling upgrades and giving benefits to those that get United Airlines credit cards. It looks great in the short term and I’m sure there are many United Airlines shareholders that are happy with his strategies. That said, I know a lot of travelers (I’m a FlyerTalk nerd too) that have left United Airlines for American Airlines or simply buying the lowest fare available.
While some of the changes are simply the cost of doing business, Smisek and his executive team are making things worse with PR gaffs. Smisek once promised several “changes you’ll like” to his customers. While there have been some improvements to United Airlines’ hard product (seats, entertainment), United’s soft product (food, service, etc.) has gotten much worse. United CFO John Rainey once called some United Airlines’ frequent flyers “over-entitled,” which was a tremendously stupid thing to say publicly.
In the last month, I’ve flown more than 21,000 miles on United Airlines and I no longer love the experience. Everything is worse. I hate seeing Jeff Smisek in the airplane’s promo videos; seeing his face makes me want to punch the screen. While I used to love flying United Airlines, most of the time it’s just “meh” to me (especially compared to my experiences on Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways) and sometimes I just hate it (getting downgraded after settling into my business class seat?!?).
While I’d love to see Jeff Smisek fired, I doubt it will happen any time soon. He’s bringing in the short money and Wall Street seems to like that. I’ll probably fly United enough to get Million Miler status. After that, I’ll probably fly American Airlines exclusively (been using AA most of the last two years for domestic travel). *sigh* I suppose this column was just about taking a stroll down memory lane and remembering how much I enjoyed traveling thanks to United Airlines. With its decreased benefits and mediocre products, the airline is turning me into one of those people that hates to travel.