Q&A: United Mileage Plus chief discusses upgrades, award blocking

It is not a true statement to say we "close off" carriers or close off availability in a sort of carte blanche method. It's done to manage – like any business would – the cost of doing so. And if you look at our performance in terms of our awards over the past year, our awards on Star Alliance have actually gone up. I don't think we are failing our customers, but there will be occasions on which someone could call the carrier and find there is availability and (then) call us and we would say that there wasn't availability. (That) might fall into that category of (customers) feeling that we're behaving in a way which they don't understand or is not consistent with the offering in the program.

Mutzabaugh: That leads us into another reader question. "Why can you only book United and not Star Alliance partner award travel online? Other Star programs such as Miles and More and ANA allow broader Star Alliance booking across the spectrum?"

Atkinson: It's a very good question. And it's a very easy answer. It's a technology issue. Our technology capability doesn't allow us to do that right now. That is something that customers want and it clearly is on our list of enhancements for the program. I can't promise – given the world of constrained resources right now – as to when that will come, but I absolutely hear that customer and there is no secret reason why we're not doing it. It's simply technological capability.

You know, you need to remember that the systems that airlines have and the way they talk to each other are designed to protect proprietary information and only allow connection on very clearly defined basis. In this case, we're trying to work to bridge that technology, which – depending on who the customer his – may sound as though it must be very easy. It actually isn't quite as easy as it may sound to actually put that technological fix in place.

Mutzabaugh: A reader asks: "What is the active number of Mileage Plus members? And how does it break down by 1K, Global Services through Premier Associate?" Is that something United would be willing to make public?

Atkinson: It's actually not. I'm sure (the reader) will understand when I say that it has got real competitive advantage and it's not something we share for competitive reasons. We're not trying to be opaque. We do publicly confirm the number of people in the (Mileage Plus) program — (more than 54 million) — but we don't typically break it down. It's interesting to people. (At) the top end of Global Services, (they may wonder) how big that is and "how many people am I competing against for my upgrade?" (Just) as it is for general members in terms of just wanting to understand the sort of scope and scale of the program.

Mutzabaugh: One complaint – and it's not specific to United – is that as frequent-flier programs have grown and matured over the past 25 years, airlines increasingly advertise frequent-flier benefits as a big reason to stay loyal. But customers don't ever actually see the number of awards that are available, and I think many feel like that information is being withheld from them. What would you say to people who raise that concern?

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