United cuts advance domestic upgrades

If you’ve become accustomed to upgrading your domestic flights on United Airlines months in advance, the party will soon be over. The carrier is abandoning its current system of so-called confirmed upgrades in favor of the last-minute upgrades that are more popular in the U.S. industry.

United announced the change last week, although it’s not planning to implement it until spring. The current system apparently was confusing for some passengers, although I prefer to call it sophisticated and not at all difficult to master if you are a semi-frequent flier. However, that’s not why United is making the change. Rather, in trying to maximize revenue from selling first-class seats for cash, it will keep more of those seats open until just before departure…

Airlines try to unload frequent-flier miles

Is the airline industry having a change of heart about the way it lets you spend your frequent-flier miles? After years of making mileage redemption difficult by limiting seats and adding steep fees for “free” tickets, the first signs are now emerging of some carriers’ realization that those policies may be backfiring.

Not only have they alienated customers, but they appear to have weighed heavily on the airlines’ books, in which unused miles are a major liability. United Airlines, in particular, seems to really want you to burn your miles. After discounting domestic and European mileage tickets this year, it became the first major carrier last week to eliminate “close-in fees” of up to $100 for booking an “award” less than 21 days before travel…

Award blocks still irk United fliers

There is rarely a single specific issue a reporter writes about that provokes huge interest from its first mention, and then continues to do so for months on end. For loyal customers of United Airlines, however, the carrier’s blocking of “award” seats made available by its partners in the global Star Alliance is not just any issue.

That was evident as soon as this column exposed the previously secret practice in September, as hundreds of members of United’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, complained either to me or the airline. Although I haven’t dedicated a column to the issue since early December, I continue to receive e-mail messages about it. I also try to answer some questions in a thread on FlyerTalk…

United yields on award blocking

How easy is it for an airline to make its loyal customers happy? Just ask United Airlines. The members of its Mileage Plus program have been happy campers for 10 days, spending their frequent-flier miles like there is no tomorrow.

Many of those travelers waited for that opportunity for months, if not years. They had joined Mileage Plus and mounted sizable accounts with the assumption that they would be able to redeem their miles for flights on the Star Alliance, the global network of 24 carriers of which United is a founding member. But often in the past few years, when they tried to book “awards” on Singapore Airlines, Germany’s Lufthansa or Asiana of South Korea, among others, finding availability was a Herculean task. Many travelers were angry…

Air miles’ value drops

Next time an airline offers you 5,000 miles as a “good-will gesture” for something that went wrong on a flight, you might want to negotiate a bigger number.

Miles devaluation is here, and along with rising air fares, service cutbacks and various fees, it is likely to remain a prominent feature of the travel experience for a while. Some U.S. carriers have already increased the number of miles needed for an “award ticket,” and others, no doubt, will follow suit. Airlines have awarded so many millions of miles in recent years, thanks to numerous credit card and other promotions, that they started to weigh on the carriers’ balance sheets…

Being airline elite can be simple

Many of you must already hate me — not me personally, but people like me, known as “elite” passengers.

Remember that time you were on standby for hours, then suddenly a guy walked over to the gate, asked the agent if he could get on what you hoped would be your flight, because he didn’t want to wait another hour for his original flight? A minute later, he walked away with a boarding pass in hand, and there was no seat for you on the plane. It wasn’t me, but it could have been. Elite passengers can be added to a waiting list minutes before a flight and go right to the top. The highest-level elites — and their travel companions — are exempt from all sorts of fees…