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There is a lot of attention being paid to the real time retaliation of Elan Gale against a woman who was mad that their flight was delayed. There are now rumors that the woman is dying of cancer and was desperate to spend what she feels is her last Thanksgiving with her family.

I initially read the live tweeting and thought it was somewhat humorous. Then I reached the end. Elan Gale reached a line and then crossed it. Had he left it with the glass of wine and a funny note, that would have been enough. But when the woman responded and he countered, things took a turn. He went from being someone using humor to defuse a situation to someone just making things worse.

The best thing he could have done was just ignore the note from the woman and leave it at that.

As you probably know by now, the FAA now allows use of personal electronic devices from gate to gate. Each airline has to come up with their own policy and implementation plan and a number of have started doing just that. JetBlue, Delta, American, United, and others now allow personal electronic devices during all stages of flight and more airlines are sure to follow.

My personal experience with the new policy has been solely with United. The airline took around a week and a half to implement the policy and I flew with them the first day it was in place. The flight attendants were very upbeat about it and stated that the only two caveats were that heavier devices, computers mostly, needed to be stored for takeoff and landing, and, that all devices needed to be in airplane mode during flight. The ability to use the device for the entire flight felt a little strange. I usually carry a physical book for takeoff and landing, now I just need my iPad mini or Kindle and I’m set. It is one less thing in my bag and that is always welcome. I would also say that it must be a relief for the flight attendants to not have to walk around and police people’s hand movements or worse, make those announcements, you know, “The captain has informed me that a sensor in the cockpit shows 10 devices still being used”. We can also stop policing each other. Passengers no longer have to hide that they are using a device to listen to music, receiving an ugly glare from their seatmate.

If you are flying soon realize that some carriers have not yet implemented gate-to-gate policies, the Express arm of United is one example. Also know that for international flights, most countries and FAA like bodies have not approved electronic device usage below 10,000 feet. Keep all of this in mind if asked to turn off your device. Sure the flight attendant may not have received the memo but they could also be correct when asking you for your cooperation.*

*As I wrote this there was a passenger arguing with a flight attendant about turning off her laptop.

Yesterday I wrote about the United reward miles devaluation. The post focused on the change in the award redemption levels but I came across this post from Gabriel Leigh about how adding a level complexity to rewards is another piece of the devaluation puzzle.

However, and this is the important bit: the connection has to be one class of service lower than the longhaul segment on United. So a United business class booking to Frankfurt entitles you to economy on the Nuremberg connection. It’s just the sort of thing to exasperate thousands of unsuspecting Mileage Plus members when they call up to book a ticket. In a way, it gives you a break of sorts – you can book on partners in some cases when you have to, without paying more miles. But it’s also an unnecessary injection of complexity whose drawbacks are worse than its benefits, if you ask me.

I touched a little bit on this in my post but reading Leigh’s thoughts reiterated the idea that this creating a new complexity that will simply frustrate those who are not mileage runners or advanced mileage redeemers. I think the example Gabriel gives is a little too simple as a business class seat in most of Europe is really just a coach seat. Where it is going to get really frustrating for people is Asia. If I am flying Houston-San Francisco-Seoul on United metal and then connecting to Bangkok, Singapore, etc. on Asiana then I will have to fly that last segment in coach if I want the United mileage redemption price. That is a long segment (some upwards of 7 hours) in coach when redeeming a business class reward. When someone calls in because they found Asiana business class space for that one segment only to find out that they will have to pay the partner reward price, they are going to be a little irritated.

While there is a miles increase for partners, there is a complexity cost that only time will be able to measure.

I won’t go into the details of the changes to the MileagePlus reward charts, Seth has done a good job of that. The quick summary is this: United raised reward rates and in the case of rewards on partners, the numbers are really, really ugly. One example, a business class reward Mainland U.S. to Europe on United becomes 57.5k miles one way, which is not a bad increase, but a business class reward on a partner is now 70k miles one way. That’s a 40% premium over the original 50k mile one-way reward that has been the norm for a while.

There is a lot of speculation as to why United made these changes. Some point to the 3rd quarter 10Q and the liability mentioned for outstanding miles. While I am sure this is part of the reason, United also likely wanted to offset some of the costs that they are obligated for when a passenger redeems a partner reward.

United's Jeff Smisek Talking about the 787

Is the sky falling?

While the changes are definitely not great from a customer perspective, it is not the end of the world. You can still redeem reward trips for reasonable rates on United and Copa operated flights. I think the biggest negative is that for those of us in Houston or Denver (or even Los Angeles) our options to Europe are somewhat limited. People will be looking for the more affordable mileage option to their destination, meaning United metal. Without a lot of non-stop flights out of certain hubs to Asia and Europe you end up with a lot of people competing. So while the prices may not be restrictive, the availability may become very scarce. Some travelers will give up and pay the higher rate for a partner flight while others will look for different dates for their trip. I doubt there will be a mass exodus from United, but I am sure there are those, like me, who have started looking at other airline options.

One of the caveats of the rewards is that you can redeem partner flights at the United rate if the partner flight is in a lower cabin. So if you flying Houston-Frankfurt in United BusinessFirst, you can connect on Lufthansa in coach for the United redemption rate. While this is great for places like intra-Europe where business class is a coach seat with a nicer meal, it stinks for places you cannot get without a partner or where partner availability is scarce. I am thinking of Africa where you can get as far as Lagos in BusinessFirst but then what do you do? Or southern South America (Chile, etc.) where your options are really Copa or Avianca, the latter of which you will pay a premium for.

What to Do

I have received a couple of e-mails from Houston based flyers asking what they should do in the wake of the changes announced by United. I will be quite honest, I do not know what I am going to do. If you are a leisure traveler who was mileage running on United for miles and you are willing to hunt down United operated rewards, then I would say nothing should change for you. The 57.5k mile business class reward to Europe is still a good deal.

My travel revolves mostly around work and rewards were the bright spot of being on the road. I could redeem for a very nice trip for my wife and I and be happy. Keeping that same focus is probably my best course of action, even though I am tempted to jump ship to American Airlines. One thing holding me back is the impending merger of US Airways and American. We have no idea of what the results of that union are going to be, leaving me uncomfortable devoting a lot of my flying to either of those carriers. Once that becomes more clear, I will start thinking about my options again.

These changes certainly are not the end of the world and like Seth points out, there is an even more impactful devaluation in Northern South America upgrades, but United’s changes to the partner reward chart are certainly a kick in the gut. Sure, other Star Alliance airlines have different reward prices for flights on partners, but MileagePlus was United’s shining star. I have flown them weekly for the nearly the past three years and the product has suffered but I stayed loyal because I do like redeeming my MileagePlus miles and hardly had any problems doing so. I will have to see if that continues.

United has a pre-flight video that talks about reward travel with MileagePlus and how United has a vast network of destinations. They should leave that video but add a disclaimer at the beginning or end that lets people know they will be charged a premium to get to some of those destinations on partners.