It seems there’s always a first class seat still available whenever I’m checking in for a United flight. Perhaps it’s the routes I’m flying.
I’m not a United elite, and a first class seat is offered to me as a buy up.
Here’s a recent check-in offer I received:
Historically American Airlines has offered “Load Factor-Based Upgrades” or “LFBUs” where non-elite members can buy a first class seat only when they expect to accommodate all elite upgrade requests.
Here United Airlines is offering me a first class seat while 13 elites are waiting to be upgraded into the last 2 seats.
There’s no question that United wants to monetize its first class. What United, American, and Delta are moving to is ‘paying for what you want, and getting what you pay for.’
That re-commoditizes air transportation. Frequent flyer programs were the most successful marketing innovation in history, taking what is essentially a commodity product (a seat that gets you from A to B) and creating a brand preference. Customers pay more for one airline’s product than another. They choose their preferred airline even when that airline is more expensive on a given trip.
Brand preference makes sense, and paying a premium makes sense, when there’s a value proposition across trips — where by staying loyal you’re going to be treated better, primarily through upgrades.
When upgrades are off the table — when Delta is pushing to sell 70% of first class seats and United will unload those seats for $59 while elites sit in back — there’s very little value proposition to spend more to stick with an airline on the belief that doing so will be worthwhile over the course of the year.
It’s important for United elites to understand that their loyalty is worth less than $59. Although for what it’s worth on this one hour regional jet flight I didn’t spend $59 for first class — or even $22 for economy plus. After all, there are stroopwafels in coach in the morning.