It’s been widely documented that United Airlines has implemented a series of devaluations to its MileagePlus loyalty program. First, there was the move to add a dollar spend amount to Premier Status qualification through the added criteria of “Premium Qualifying Dollars.” Then, United announced a major devaluation of their award chart which hit premium international travel particularly hard. It also created essentially a separate, more expensive chart for travel redeemed on one of United’s Star Alliance partners — the partners that supposedly make membership in Star Alliance so valuable. Finally, last week, United announced their new plan for accruing redeemable miles in its 2015 MileagePlus program — it will based purely on ticket price, and not on the mileage flown, which is essentially bad for anyone who is somewhat price-sensitive, and is buying their own tickets. This revenue-based system appears to be a carbon-copy of the same plan that Delta announced this past February, leading many to accuse United of simply copying Delta on things that arbitrarily “sound like a good idea.”
To counteract these devaluations, one might think that United may increase award availability so it’s not all bad for the consumer. Alas, that is not the case. Though United continues to have pretty good saver award availability on international awards, it has become increasingly hard to find a saver award — particularly for a premium cabin on a transcontinental domestic flight.
Case in point: United’s Premium Service flights from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).
These flights are operated by two-class Boeing 757-200s with a special, two-class configuration featuring 28 lie-flat, business class seats. I was alerted by a friend that the availability of these seats is absolutely dismal, so I looked into it and then decided to compare it with the availability of “saver” level award seats in both Delta and American’s programs.
What I found was much worse than I thought.
Below are the availability calendars for United’s Premium Service Saver-level award availability for JFK-LAX for the entire schedule.
*Yellow denotes saver economy space is available. Blue denotes BusinessFirst is available, and Green denotes both economy and BusinessFirst is available.
That’s right. For the entire year, there is award space for only three dates for BusinessFirst — and all are within the next three days.
The availability is much the same for the opposite direction: LAX-JFK: 3 dates in the next year; ironically enough including Christmas Eve.
I then decided to look at the other United Premium Service route to San Francisco, only to find similar results (I’ll spare you all the calendar shots.)
JFK-SFO: Slightly better, with 6 days of BusinessFirst open
SFO-JFK: The worst of the whole bunch: only 2 days with BusinessFirst saver open, and very little economy space open at all.
After seeing this paltry availability for United, I figured that surely it was probably just as bad for Delta and American.
Upon studying the Delta award availability (which is much more difficult to navigate than United’s), I found that on its JFK-LAX premium route with all flat-beds in its Transcontinental BusinessElite product, there was actually pretty good availability for saver-level seats after September. In fact, in October, it’s pretty wide open (the Green dates indicate Saver availability). The same was true with return flights from LAX-JFK.
Delta’s Domestic Award Chart
It is worth noting that Delta has a couple different levels of “Saver” awards, based on seasonality, so a Saver award could cost you either 50,000 or 65,000 round trip (since no one-way awards are offered on Delta). Delta’s online award search engine is also vastly inferior to that of United, so there’s always that.
American Airlines had a simllar pattern of availability as did Delta. Though this summer’s business or first class “MileSAAver” level availability was slim-to-none, it looked pretty good after August. Below is American’s chart for Business class MileSAAver awards on its non-stop JFK-LAX route on its new A321T, 3-class “Flagship Service” flights. It’s also worth noting that first class availability was just as readily available after the summer time.
So what does this tell us?
For starters: don’t plan on being able to use your United miles to fly on its Premium Service flights anytime soon. This is just another deficiency that’s a result of a littany of #flyerUNfriendly “enhancements” to United’s formally industry-leading MileagePlus loyalty program.
Though it faces major competition in a continually evolving US air travel market, United seems to cherry-pick the things that it copies from other airlines, such as Delta’s Skymiles medallion qualification and revenue-based earning program. At the same time, it seems to ignore other very important things such as creating operational efficiencies by decreasing the reliance on regional carriers, and rewarding customers with at least making premium transcontinental flights obtainable with miles. It could always mean that United is filling all these high dollar seats with paying customers while their competition is not, but given United’s recent reports of profitability (or lack thereof), I really doubt it.