I have been meaning to write a follow-up to a post I wrote two years ago (http://patstravelreviews.com/has-united-changed-their-upgrade-policy/) about getting upgraded on United with the Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPU’s). Not so much because I haven’t been upgraded on four flights in a row last month (in fact, I initially planned to write how it seemed to be easier getting upgraded), but rather, to give an update on how getting upgraded has changed since the United/Continental merger has had time to work their kinks out.
I wrote the prior post on getting upgraded on United in 2012. The year that United and Continental merged. So a few things were happening that year that was causing problems for Premier member’s getting upgraded. First, because of the merger, United’s system had problems integrating with Continental’s (or vica versa) and sometimes people were left off the upgrade list completely or put below where they should have been (even Global Service members). In addition, Continental’s equivalent Elite level to United’s 1K was Platinum, which only required 75,000 miles flown per year (1K – 100,00 miles per annum). This created a disproportionate number of the highest level Elite members. Therefore, making it harder for even 1K members getting upgraded. In 2013, I still saw signs that United wanted to curtail the number of CPU’s (I will detail below) they gave away. However, I found that I was upgraded almost as much as I did prior to the merger. I think I was only way down the upgrade list on one flight and received a complimentary upgrade at least 80% of the flights I flew (not counting flights I used Global or Regional certs on). So I felt that things were almost the same as they had been since United did away with the 500 mile upgrade segments and gave complimentary upgrade’s to Elite members.
But again in 2014, I have seen a return of the same scenarios as late 2012. I have been upgraded on less than half of the flights I have flown (not including flights I used Regional or Global upgrades) this year and more telling, I have been number ten or higher on the upgrade list on more than a few flights. I feel there are a number of reasons for this.
United has reduced the number of flights they fly and the aircraft they fly. So there are simply less seats available. As an example, from San Diego to ORD, United used to have at least 5 flights per day. Now it is down to 2 or 3 daily flights. Same from San Diego to Denver. United has significantly reduced the number of flights a day and on some flights fly Regional jets (they have also done away with meal service between SAN & DEN).
The economy has gotten a lot better. Therefore more people are traveling for business and there are way more Premier members on every level (including Global Service – not sure how to even qualify for that). Which means more Premier member’s vying for what seats are left in First Class. Unfortunately for me and many other non-corporate travelers, I think United also feels that they have too many high-level Elite members. While United does not want to loose these members, they say they want to reward those that spend the most money. So United (along with Delta) has instituted a spending component to achieve Elite level for 2015. So now miles flown is not the only parameter (not sure how this effects Star Alliance partner flights) to become or retain your Premier status (http://united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/premier/qualify.aspx). Personally, I think this (along with how award miles are earned-also based on money spent) will backfire on United and Delta. I will greatly reduce my travel this year with both airlines and not retain my 1K status with United nor Gold Medallion with Delta for next year. If many others think and do the same it would hurt both airlines (especially how fragile both the economy is now, as well as world events).
Even with these two factors, the biggest reason it is harder getting upgraded on United is that they do not want to give as many complimentary upgrades away as they used to. I do not think United wants to 100 percent do away with CPU’s (it is one of the main reasons they have been able to gain so many Elite members). They just would rather have someone pay or use their miles to get upgraded. I feel that both Delta and United would like to see the main benefit for their mid-level Members be; preferred seating, free checked bags, and priority boarding and only upgrade their very highest members (Global Service for United and Diamond for Delta) or those willing to pay or use miles. The difference with United from Delta, is that United actively promotes upgrades on their flights. On several occasions this year I have gotten e-mails that upgrades are available on flights I am taking and I can either use miles or pay to upgrade. I guess this is also a way to even the playing field for Gold (who I imagine rarely get upgraded these days), Silver, and general members. They can now leapfrog a Premier Platinum or higher to get a first class seat. Thus, also making it harder for a 1K to receive an upgrade. As an example, these past two months, on three occasions, I was number one on the upgrade list when it checked-in full. On each of those flights there were plenty of seats free in First Class when I bought my ticket and four days prior to departure (on each of these flights I received that e-mail about upgrading, even though I was within the 100 hour window for CPU’s). Now there are other factors that may have also caused me to miss an upgrade by one person, like the fare I payed, when I bought my ticket and when I checked in for the flight. But, I am a 2 Million Miler with United, fly at least 60 segments a year, and have been a 1K for each year for almost the last 20 years (wow, I am getting old 🙁 ) . So I can see trends. Not getting upgraded is one thing, but being #10 or higher on the upgrade list on a flight from MSY to IAH or SFO to SAN confirms that things have changed.
Another example of how United does not want to give free upgrade’s away. Getting upgraded to Hawaii used to be one of the hardest markets to get upgraded on. To United’s credit they offer CPU’s to Hawaii. The service (patstravelreviews.com/united-first-class-review-from-honolulu/) is basically the same to their other domestic routes with a few exceptions (they do fly some aircraft with BusinessFirst seating to Hawaii) . But recently it has become easy using miles (or Regional/Global upgrades) to upgrade to Hawaii. I have flown to Hawaii twice this year and was able to use my Regional upgrades with ease. To my surprise, I was even able to secure an upgrade for my wife and I on a flight that only had a few seats free in First Class (something that would never happen on other routes). Again, my take on this was that United just didn’t want to give away a complimentary upgrade on this route (and obviously didn’t feel they could sell those seats). Where it is not easy using miles or Global/Regional Premier upgrades are on United’s International flights and their p.s. Premium service between JFK & LAX/SFO. United does not give away CPU’s on these flights. Because of this, the upgrade list is usually small on these flights. I was unable to gain an upgrade in advance on the three p.s. Premium (http://patstravelreviews.com/united-airlines-757-premium-service-review-between-jfk-and-lax-sfo/) flights I took this year, nor on two International flights I wanted to take (decided not to take the chance and flew another airline), however, I was upgraded at the gate or within 24 hours of departure on all three p.s. flights (another sign the economy is doing better, these flights are not cheap and they do seem to sell most of the seats).
Lastly, in the past few months I have noticed that United has lowered their First Class fares on several routes (another sign they do not want to give CPU’s away). About two years ago both Delta and American started having more reasonable First Class fares, but never United. Earlier today I went to buy a ticket to ORD from San Diego and a one-way Economy ticket was $225 while the First Class fare was only $365. For that small difference I would probably just buy the First Class fare. This obviously lessens the number of seats that are available for upgrade when the window becomes available.
As I said, I was originally writing this post as an update to my experiences in 2012 (which were light-years different than prior to the merger). But as I write this and re-live the flights I have taken this year. There is not really much to update. Again, I am not complaining about not getting upgraded. I think complaining by high level Mileage Plus Elite members has given United the confidence that they can change the way one earns Premier status (I know this is why Delta decided to change their program and introduced the spending requirements to earn Medallion level). What bothers me and why I decided to readdress this topic is that United is being even more aggressive in not wanting to give away upgrades. I have no problem with them lowering their First Class fares and not getting upgraded because someone actually paid to fly in First Class (although, I think this is a precursor to even worse service in First). Plus, it makes sense that they do not want to give away something for nothing. Except when that nothing is loyalty.