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

Atkinson:I would say that they're right. I'd say that some of the perceived concerns they have are not born of us trying to withhold information; They're born – again – of technological limitations, given that we're dealing with legacy systems here. And I would say that in almost all cases, it is in our interest to actually be straight-forward and honest with customers ... and to try to be as transparent about what is available and what's not available as you can.

Certainly, some of the work that we've been doing over the last three months is to try to see how we can meaningfully address that issue – both in terms of the display of products more effectively on United.com and in other mediums – and also to look at ways in which we can actually be more creative about making a broader ranger of offers and more timely promotional-type offers that give people the chance to get more value out of the program.

So, if you would (pick) one of my goals for Mileage Plus over the net couple of years, it's actually to improve the value proposition – not to take away elements of the program. And to deliver (options and offers) to customers in a way that they want to see it at a time that the want to buy. And not ... trying to be opaque or take things away. I think that ultimately is actually going to lead us to success – not only amongst our airline competitors, but because there are some very other creative products and programs that are emerging all the time. So the competitive bar is being raised and we need to respond to that.

Mutzabaugh:Could there be a day, for example, where the technology enhancements will allow United to show customers that on a given flight from – say Chicago to Heathrow – that there are five award seats available in Economy and three in first or business? Is that something that we might ever see? Or, are there reasons you would shy away from that level of specificity?

Atkinson: You know, at the moment, we are so far away from that, that might be an aspirational (idea). But there might be a lot we can do between here and there – both increasing the range and showing the availability more. I think it's high on my priority list of things. We need to really push ourselves to make available seats that we truly believe are going to be surplus or available (and) offer them to customers in as timely a fashion as we can. And we need to do that in ways that people understand and actually helps them make decisions as a key part of the value proposition of being a Mileage Plus member.

Mutzabaugh:But, even there, could there be a risk to that? For example, if United says there are five award seats available for a flight several weeks out, but then the bookings swing one way or the other — then you might have to adjust your availability. So, if that happens, you might have to put additional award seats into play or take some away. Any fear that could stoke customers' concerns about transparency?

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