Restoring the Trust that United Lost with its March 3 Continental Merger/Integration Problems

Wandering Aramean offers a nice discussion of this morning’s Frequent Traveler University session with a United executive who came out to face the music of frequent flyers.

He caught a red eye to make it to Newark, I think he showered, and then came down for a session which ran from 10am until lunch. To me, it was (hopefully) the beginning of United’s rapprochement with its customers — the March 3rd integration of United and Continental, their reservation systems, and mileage programs has been a disaster. At the Freddie Awards Thursday evening Robert Wuhl said that you could trust United to keep its promises — “when they promised 2 to 4 hour hold times, they key their promise!”

And of course it hasn’t been just telephone hold times, which have improved (although hardly to pre-March 3 United levels, though it’s worth remembering that the airline really is more or less Continental operating under the United name).

When reservations were migrated to the new system, segments disappeared. Upgrades haven’t processed correctly, either in advance at all at times (though in theory still in the correct order) or the waitlist hasn’t processed when seats open (so folks sometimes swoop in and grab seats not otherwise due to them).

Agents haven’t known how to handle the new system, so they say things are impossible, like protecting a flyer on a later flight “if I do that then all of your future flights will cancel.” Saying “this system doesn’t allow us to do that” is usually wrong, agents haven’t learned the new system (I blame the airline not the agents, even when the agents are recalcitrant). And agents haven’t learned the new policies, so they’ll often enforce policies that they think are still in place. Or agents will go about policing rules they believe are in place, like that upgrades need to be supported and requested sufficiently in advance so that when they don’t see how an upgrade is being supported they’ll deny it even when the passenger is on the list and would appear to clear at the gate.

It’s amazing how many things they’ve gotten wrong, despite public statements. There’s no question this was a gargantuan IT challenge. But the early claims that they had it under control, that they had run the drill and everything was fine, and then initially downplaying concerns — it just didn’t pan out.

That said, things have gotten better, and not just with hold times. As there are fewer and fewer pre-March 3 reservations, there are fewer and fewer problems. They have a long hit list that they’re working through and they’re working crazy hours to do it. And they’re nowhere near fixed or as functional as systems were prior to March 3.

It’s also worth noting that there are whole categories of other problems only tangentially related to the March 3 integration. Award tickets have had segments on partner airlines cancelled when the partner sees that there’s a reservation but the ticket number doesn’t get pushed through. This has happened most frequently with Asiana. But that’s not new, it was a problem with the pre-March 3 Continental as well. But it never used to happen with United, so in some ways it’s exacerbated by the merger even if the integration didn’t directly cause the problem.

And there are problems with the new upgrade rules, upgrade priority algorithms have had to be changed so that Global Services members weren’t being trumped by government fare Premier Silvers based on government fares treated as full fares. That’s still a problem, though, where 1Ks on non-full fare tickets are trumped by government fare Silvers on sometimes less expensive (but ‘full fare’) tickets. For most airlines that sort of thing is a rounding error but for United, operating a hub in DC, that’s huge. I hope they’ll revisit the approach here.

I think there are some real advantages for customers who started on the United side of the merger that’s often lost, perhaps because the gains were capitalized when first achieved shortly after the merger was announced. United used to block its members from booking award seats offered by partners when the airline expected to exceed its budget for partner award tickets for the quarter, claiming falsely that “no seats are available.” Frequent flyers called it “Starnet blocking,” the United folks referred to it as “throttling,” but that practice was brought to an end. And routing rules were relaxed considerably, United used to let its members take flights up to the published “maximum permitted mileage” for a given route, that was relaxed to be up to 15% over that maximum permitted mileage. And in practice that’s not seemingly enforced strictly at all in the post-March 3 world (it certainly hadn’t been enforced on the Continental side). Real friendly improvements on the redemption side that made United miles much more valuable.

It’s easy to understand why, after breaking its promises to customers with the integration, United doesn’t want to toot its horn too heavily about its improvements until it has the basics fixed. But those improvements are worth remembering, the positives balance the negatives for some folks, and that might be a step towards restoring some of the trust of which United is currently in significant deficit with its customers. Another big step was coming forward to stand in front of a couple hundred of those passionate customers, put no subject off the table, listen and give candid answers.

Seth scribbled down several important quotes, that I think give feeling to the session:

Upgrades are clearing more reliably, but still not happening all the time

We’re really bad at transparency for upgrades right now.

We’re telling gate agents to “Please don’t police upgrades. If the person is on the list don’t worry about how they got there.”

Also interesting was the discussion of Twitter and customer service, it was sufficiently shocking to see everyone in the room (to a 98% approximation) raise their hands when asked if they had a Twitter account that our guest pulled out his phone to take a picture as a dramatic way to capture the importance of the medium for others at the company. United certainly hasn’t made the strides there that Delta has (with @DeltaAssist).

It was much appreciated to have the face time, they’re working hard, and eventually one imagines they’ll fix the problems. A little bit of humility, certainly shown this morning, is a good step as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I just want the company to say something, anything (be it malicious, accidental, or otherwise) about the infamous TOD (Tens of Dollars) upgrades.

    Otherwise, the silence is deafening.

  2. I’ve had my share of frustrations with United since the merger especially with bookings made under the old system, not to mention the marathon 4.5 hours I spent on hold a day after the conversion to resolve a missing flight. But each time once they finally got through to me, they more than made up for it by giving me quite a few extra miles and even a status match for my wife from the now defunct BMI Diamond Club Gold to Premier Gold without any “challenge” requirements. Even when I asked about missing ORD-HKG promo miles, they were apologetic for the delay and gave me twice the miles that I was entitled to for the promo for December and January travel as a goodwill gesture.

    Have they been perfect? no, but helpful? YES!

  3. Why do you always pick on govt travelers? What about you folks who are private industry or non-profit who negotiate discounted Y fares? I very rarely get a govt Y fare, it is usually V, or W, or H, and it has never been instantly upgradeable, either with the old UA or the new UA.

    In fact, most people do not really “earn” status, they are simply spending someone else’s money. And I have seen plenty of travelers in private industry who game the system or simply take unnecessary trips, all at shareholder expense, in order to build their mileage and point balance.

  4. @UA-NYC they actually did, that glitches aside they do not intend to offer non-elites upgrades for pay OTHER THAN BUYUPS TO AN INSTANT UPGRADE FARE when there are elites on the waitlist. Most of the time they either think that’s what’s actually happening, or there have been some algorithm problems. That’s the line anyway. Given the public statements i’m inclined to believe incompetence rather than maliciousness (combined with urban legend, that it doesn’t happen as frequently as often thought). Of course that could be wrong.

  5. @Carl it’s a personal issue for me as a non-government DC traveler, I fully get an airline may make that choice and I just say it doesn’t work for me and I also think it won’t work for an airline with a DC hub. And good on ya for not booking YCA fares!

  6. The TOD upgrades need to be addressed. Many flyers (1K and GS) are feeling like upgrades are being ripped out from under them. Holding back so many seats until the gate doesn’t help this.

    I wonder if Seth can elaborate on “policing of the upgrades” and give an example. Are agents questioning why people should be on the UPG list? Does this have to do with people being dropped off?

  7. @Kyle this was in response to a question where an agent told a flyer that they didn’t appear to have requested an upgrade and had their instrument pulled, and that you couldn’t do it at the gate, so that flyer flew in the back of the plane even with empty business class seats. (The flyer’s position was, “if that were true how would i even have gotten on the upgrade list?”) It’s apparently been common enough that agents are being specifically instructed that it isn’t their role to question how people got on the list, just to process the list and let the program worry about whether or not a given upgrade was properly supported.

  8. Thanks Gary. Much better to read this from a trusted source, rather than someone who is known to be in the tank for COdbaUA.

  9. So even when the general content is the same and when you have absolutely no evidence that I’m actually “in the tank” for UA you’ll continue to slander me and dispute the content.

    Incredibly mature. :rolleyes:

  10. So, are you in the tank or not? The only evidence I’ve seen that you dislike anything at COdbaUA is your blanket thread. While other bloggers, such as Gary, call this merger a disaster, you seem to think it went fine.

    What else don’t you like?

  11. And where did I dispute the content? I never like to get my news from one source, and that includes the blogosphere.

    Do you deny that you have a pro COdbaUA slant?

  12. Why can’t COdbaUA do simple things, like let us CHOOSE when to recieve our SWUs?
    I don’t think that was a SHARES thing.

    Why can’t they honor the MM United program? Lots of things they could be doing during this transition to make us feel the love: instead, the airline seems to be going OUT OF ITS WAY to annoy, frustrate and antagonize!

  13. Does UA compensate me in any way for the content I produce? Absolutely 100% not. Continuing to suggest otherwise is just plain silly.

    Of course, I’ve said this many times and you’ve ignored it, so I don’t expect anything to change this time around, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

  14. I have no idea how you want to interpret the “slant” of my posts. I certainly have a tendency to look at things through a view that also includes understanding the business rationale behind the moves rather than just demanding more as a customer in every scenario, so maybe that is seen as a pro-company slant. I don’t think it is.

    As for GS, no, I didn’t get it via spend. But that’s not the only way to get it. I got lucky with that. It was an 18 month thing and then it will be gone. There were a whole bunch of other people who got it the same way I did on the day I did. I’m reasonably sure there were more such events on other days and in other cities as well. I figure a few hundred got it. But it certainly has nothing to do with the blog or any of the content I’ve posted anywhere.

  15. Anyone have any recomendations on how I can some extra miles or any sort of bonus to make up for a big UA screw up in which they switched my connecting flight to prior to my initial flight landing, and then made me spend $400 to change the initial agent’s mistake? I spent 3 hours on hold on March 21, gave up, sent an e-mail requesting immediate help… and got a response yesterday.

  16. Starnet blocking? The “New United” doesn’t need starnet blocking as must as before they’re just making it harder to earn the miles to start with…..just ask silvers, golds, and plats and there new merger RDM elite bonuses. Don’t worry as much about how customers use the miles by just making it harder to earn them to start with. Similar result.

  17. After relegating Premier to E-, I can hardly think why I’d make UA my carrier. I’m a FF, but not a 50k mile FF and will never be without a career change, or MRs. Thanks, but no thanks UA.

  18. As for slander — you should review your 50,000+ posts on FT and see how many times you twist and distort others views. I could just as easily say that’s slander. And it’s appalling for a one-time moderator and ‘super-Evangelist’ to treat other members the way you do on a regular basis.

    Quite frankly, it’s behavior such as that that led Randy & Company to start Milepoint, a much more friendly environment that doesn’t tolerate bullying.

  19. Just curious and sorry if mentioned before. Has UA or will UA status match AA members now? Similar to what AA is offering? Im EXP could go for 1K and be happy.

  20. Honestly, props to the guy for entering the lion’s den. He did a great job of listening and taking note on technical issues. However, I think he was out of his depth on the big-picture issues. He belongs to a department that focuses on solving individual issues in the system – problems with upgrades, award inventory etc… I might be misunderstanding, but I think the broader issues are way above his pay grade. One of the audience members tried to offer advice on how to get your customer to ‘love’ your brand, but I think that fell on deaf ears. Despite this team’s enthusiasm for solving consumer “pain points,” the company does not seem to have a top-down culture of customer service. There is no way a department of 3-or-so people can effect mass change. Solutions have to come from the top. Disillusionment seems rife in the ranks at UA. Now every flight I take I am literally strapped to my chair and forced to listen to the CEO tell me how awesome everything is while the staff moan and grumble around me. The dissonance is striking.

  21. Nice they sent a rep to a meeting they knew would get them some “They’re working on it PR”. I’d rather he sat down at a terminal and worked on my 2 problems:

    1. My wife can’t see her UA MP history at all. Emails sent, case numbers sent back, no action after weeks.

    2. Trying to book multiple city award in C. All flights available in C but after flight selection, getting error message instead of pricing. Same trip in Y prices so issue is not award rules.

    On same award attempt, asking for a one way trip Intra-Europe brings up many flight options for day requested. Askung for same routing as part of mutli-city booking brings up 1 flight arriving late at night with same criteria.

    The backlog of email requests will eventually go down but the compter breakage looks like the kind of stuff that hit the DL award engine years ago. Oh, I forgot-they’re “working on it” too, aren’t they?

  22. This isn’t really an issue about Seth. He may take a more balanced view than most, but in truth I’m a customer and will take the view that is based on my experiences. These are not good with UACO at the moment.

  23. @Sam from what I saw at the event, the UA Rep stayed in the room for over an HOUR talking with members about their SPECIFIC problems. Cast all the fault and blame you want on UA, and they deserve it, but in this case they were the ONLY airline that sent someone to speak, and he DID make EVERY attempt to make things right…its not going to fix everything, but at least they cared to show up and work with us…its better than just ignoring us completely.

  24. hobo13 that is neither nice nor fair to Seth. I have followed his blog and posts on FT and often I disagree but I think he has helped many members, and by no means a bully. And he is right that sometimes it is refreshing to look from the company’s point of view even if we are not on its payroll.

  25. Carlos is a class act, and CO is lucky to have him. To bad the folks above him are managing the company to meet fiscal targets of amounts saved and did not listen as to how this would effect passanger loyalty. Numbers next quarter will be interesting…

  26. When I see person A posting unfounded lies about person B (who has provided numerous useful tools, tips, and unbiased objective data), I know who I consider the bully.

  27. JoelFreak-

    As I said, it was nice he came to the meeting.

    As you said, they deserve the blame. How long did they have to plan this? Was it a year? Was there a real outside deadline to pull the trigger when they didn’t have their ducks lined up?

    I’m somewhat surprised UA sent a rep to the meeting. After arm-wrestling with that booking engine the past couple of weeks, I’m more surprised that he was able to book a flight to get there.

  28. @LIH Prem – guessing the same Carlos who came to the Chicago Park Hyatt reception at SMD3. Very nice and personable guy, but by no means an executive-level decision maker IIRC.

  29. I’m an old CO infinite platinum elite, and now a lifetime 1K. I have had problems with the merger, but I can’t honestly say it’s been a “disaster.” More like a nuisance. Like my kids (silver elite) getting a domestic upgrade on a flight where I, as a platinum, didn’t clear! (we were probably better off on that flight, but not giving me much confidence that my upgrades will process correctly). And I did have an award ticket on ANA get cancelled when UA failed to move the reservation through the queue. But they made that up to me by allocating me new “unavailable” award space on UA metal for comparable flights. I’ve also had other randoms problems like reservations not being in “sinc” and not being able to print online boarding passes.

    Airlines these days are unbelievably complex organisms, so I would expect lots of glitches during the merger. The main thing, of course, is to keep the planes flying on time and not losing reservations. They seem to have done that. As long as they keep ironing out the glitches, I will be happy.

    I do think the general public has been most annoyed by the telephone wait times (which hasn’t really affected me as an elite). There is nothing more frustrating about travel than having a problem (why else would you be calling?) and not being able to speak to someone to resolve it. This issue would seem to overwhem all the others; I hope it’s being fixed ASAP.

  30. I wonder if I’m the only 1K out there who has had a glitch-free transition. For whatever reason — probably just dumb luck — it hasn’t negatively impacted me at all. I’m 17 of 18 on upgrades so far this year, with the only miss being when my SEA-ORD was so delayed that I would have missed my last connection for the day and so switched to fly out the next day. Even then, at departure, I was number 1 on the upgrade list.

    I have a friend and colleague who has been repeatedly snakebit by the transition, so I know it’s bad for many people. I just don’t know why it hasn’t been bad for me. Probably best not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

  31. jeepers. Loved this blog entry, gleff. It’s why I can’t stop reading this blog; or really take anyone very serious when they snipe at gleff.
    For me, everything happening at New United this year is just par for the course. Wouldn’t have surprised me if the planes were running into each other on the ground in Chicago!
    I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure out why people are having so much trouble with this, and couldn’t see it coming. One thing I realized was that my perpective was influnced by my living in Atlanta, and all the Delta whoopee. Northwest and Delta merged, and we got alot of weeping and wailing from ff travelers. Delta went bankrupt, and we learned recently bankrupt airlines employees do not give great customer service.
    Another thing I realized is that maybe many of the readers of these blogs are intelligent people who are lucky enough not to work for a mega-corporation. When a mega-corporation makes a commitment to a change, they don’t make a public proclamation “We are making a change; gosh, hope it all works out swell for everbody, folks!” They just CHANGE, and let the chips fall where they may. And what the “agents” are thinking as they look at you is “Yeah, you’ve had status since 2006; and it was good for you. But that was then and this is now. Today is just not your day; and tommorrow is questionable. We’ve got your money, and I can only hope we will get you to your destination even reasonably late. Have a nice day. Next.”
    My strategy is avoid, as much as possible, flying on airlines that are going through “changes”.

  32. I’m with Carl in that you have often picked on govt travelers for no reason. YCA fare is stil l a Y fare, and is no better or worse than corporate negotiated Y fares. DL operates the same way with upgrades.

    UA policy “doesn’t work for you”, I’m guessing only because you’ve missed out on some upgrades. Kind of selfish. As they say, if you want guaranteed F seat pay for it.

  33. @iaphx – Once you start to loose upgrades on a regular basis, it’s a disaster. When you go from getting upgraded 12 out 12 flights pre 3/3 to 0 out of 6 its a disaster. And it’s not limited in scope. CO management had the arrogance to expect that they could just shake things up reduce benefits and everyone would just keep flying UA. They completely ignored the customers voice.
    Maybe in former CO fortress hubs they had captive customers used to paying $59 for upgrades. I think UA will loose about 30 to 50% of its top frequent fliers unless it takes immediate action.

  34. @PanAm and whoever else is supporting the govt fares policy. This issue symptomatic of what is wrong with the new UA. Upgrading someone who had flown 25K and is on a $400 Y fare vs. someone who has flown 150K and is on a $300 fare and has spent 5X as much over the last year is sort of ridiculous. I too hope they see the error of their ways, mostly for their own benefit.

  35. @PanAm Delta’s policy is the same indeed, that’s why as a Northwest Platinum flying DCA-SLC, three consecutive trips I was in the 30s or 40s on the upgrade list at the gate. Government fares are a non-issue in most markets, in DC they’re a huge deal. Indeed it doesn’t work for me, I will fly an airline that rewards more the sort of tickets I’m buying. It’s also an area that’s a change int he new program, where fare trumps status. I’m not “picking on government travelers” I’m describing a change in the upgrade algorithm that means the passengers who benefit and those who lose change.

  36. Nick —

    Why are you losing all these UA upgrades? Is your status not being properly recognized? I haven’t flown UA in about 4 weeks, but the system did seem to process the upgrades correctly the last time.

  37. I have to say that although there are many comments about how THE NEW UNITED (Continental) did a miserable job with this integration, my experiences have been close to flawless. As a 1K from Old United and an earnerd Continental Platinum, I applaud these guys for their job so far. Considering all the other failed attempts at integration (think US Airways and America West) this has been a walk in the park.

  38. It is a bit disappointing not to see some of the major issues addressed by such a savvy audience. Admittedly not all are merger-related but they are important to the top level elites:

    (1) Treatment of expanded 1K ranks. At SFO 1Ks use the same ultra-long security line as 2Ps and now board with 2Ps. For me priority security and boarding are critical benefits, and I see no reason to strive for 1K when 2P will get me the same treatment.

    (2) Autosplitting of reservations as part of upgrade process. Many reports of elites being split from non-elites on the same record without specific permission or explanation of the implications. This is going to create big headaches for staff when young children are split from parents. Would be nice to know that UA is aware of the problem and working on it.

    (3) SFO security lines. Horrendous is the only word, even for elites, and now even worse that nude-o-scans have been added to the elite line. This is a major hub, does UA have anyone working on a solution – and if they do please let us know specifically what is envisioned.

    (4) Lack of advance business class TATL and TPAC saver award inventory. I realize this problem is somewhat alleviated by elimination of *A blocking, but does UA really want to spend $$$ for passengers to fly free on other carriers, as opposed to opening its own seats? As you note elsewhere, AA has good award inventory.

  39. AA C inventory in my view has melted away after BA/AA TATL JV. Now mostly you get space on BA (where there is a fee for fuel) while TATL inventory on AA is in Y, not C or F.

  40. I’m another elite (1P MM) who is in the “annoyance” camp, not the “disaster” camp.

    One new benefit for PMUA flyers that has not been well publicized: Pre-merger, if you booked a standard award, you could only fly on UA metal. Now you can include partner segments as part of the same award if saver space is available on the partner. Example: US-Florence (or almost anywhere in Europe that UA does not fly on their own metal) – can now get there by booking a single standard award on UA (comes out of Standard award inventory UA US-FRA; LH Saver inventory FRA-Florence).

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