United announced yesterday that they were removing the ability to see the seats availability by fare class on their website (so-called “expert mode”).
They explained their reasoning:
[F]or many customers who are not as familiar with the ins and outs of fare structures, there was often room for this information to be misinterpreted. It also left the door open for undesired exposure that allowed automated scripts to scrape and re-display information in ways for which it was not intended.
In other words, (1) too much information in the hands of customers isn’t something they wanted to deal with, and (2) they didn’t like that other websites and tools accessed this information.
FlightStats.com will still show you availability for paid tickets, by fare class, for any given United flight. But the neat thing about what United had been offering on its website is that United.com would also show you special award and upgrade classes.
You could see how many award seats were available, that information is easily replicable with an award search. But it would also show you how many seats were available to confirm an upgrade. That’s incredibly useful to find flights where confirmable upgrade seats are available, you book those flights and then confirm your upgrade (with upgrade instruments or miles). And it also lets you track flights you’ve already purchased in order to make a decision about whether to wait it out for a complimentary upgrade or plunk down a confirmed upgrade instrument.
It was indispensable information for a regular, savvy United customer.
Wandering Aramean says the reason the information was pulled is because of “discrepancies in displayed data” — that the website would show availability that wasn’t really there, and that it was too hard to just fix the problem.
United pinned the blame on customers who didn’t understand what they were looking at, and on screen scraping (it’s unclear which screen scrapers they were referring to, the KVS Tool certainly was accessing the United website and then rendering the data in a customized format, I had always been under the impression that Expert Flyer was getting its information directly from the airline but it’s possible that was not the case).
United says they’re working on a (less functional) replacement:
But, instead of simply exposing fare class inventory (which is quite confusing to most customers), we are working on better ways to share this more meaningful information.
For an airline with call center issues, forcing customers to call and hope for a decent agent who will burn time hunting and pecking for confirmable upgrade space, this hardly seems like pulling this self-serve tool is a good solution.
For an airline that’s alienating its best customers every day by removing benefits and experiencing severe reliability problems (at the bottom of the pack for on-time departures, inability to actually ticket purchased award reservations on partners at times) making customer-unfriendly moves hardly makes any sense.
And ultimately, taking information away from customers is not a long-run winning strategy. Keeping customers in the dark about information crucial to their travels, in a highly competitive industry, is just a bad business move.
If there were concerns that stem from offering the data the way they had been (and the data had been available on the United website in one form or another for years), then the better approach would have been to develop the replacement system before decommissioning the current one.
Sadly, expert mode was disabled on the United website overnight. May she rest in peace, in the same electronic graveyard as my beloved ‘United Connection’ disk-based software for making bookings.
Update: Of course you can still search United.com for flights with upgrade space by using the United website’s advanced search and clicking ‘MileagePlus Upgrade Award’ … and if you want to figure out how many seats are available, just vary the number of passengers you are searching for. The KVS Tool has already adapted itself to this new method.