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

Atkinson:There's a real challenge between giving complete information and not. Because as circumstances change and you give information in good faith, it turns out to be (something like this example): "Oh, the flight is delayed two hours because your flight has gone mechanical – but then half an hour later we've actually found another plane that's come in early and we can now use that one to substitute for your flight, so the plane's going in 45 minutes." (So, when something like that happens), you delight 50 people and you infuriate 50 people by the process.

So, it's always a dilemma for us. I think exactly to your point, we work very hard (in) looking at: "Have we predicted the demand on a particular flight wrongly and are there going to be more empty seats now than we thought there were? And, therefore, can we offer more seats up? "

One of the messages I'd say to customers is: It may be frustrating going back and checking the Web every day, but we do open up seats on a dynamic basis for redemption. (That's) based on changing demand patterns. We have some pretty sophisticated computers that measure demand patterns, but even they – closer in – often need to be overruled by manual intervention.

Mutzabaugh:A reader writes in: "Where other airlines offer complimentary and unlimited upgrades, why does United continue to use the more-limited 500-mile upgrade point system?"

Atkinson:That's a great question, and I would say it's something we do need to look at. (If) you look at competing programs, in most of the programs you can pick out one or two items that are better in one program than the other program.

We offer systemwide upgrades which many of our major competitors don't. They're highly appealing. They're quite costly for us to actually deliver, but they are highly sought by our super-elites and are a core part of our program.

So ... part of the answer is, like any program, it has to be fiscally responsible and you have to make your choices where the customer value is. On the other hand, … in the context of upgrades, it's very much sought after and a very emotional subject and it's not something we look at in a static world. We are always looking at whether we're in line (with competitors) or whether we need to change the way we do things. This is one of those (items) that sort of sits in the "active" inbox rather than the "deferred and not-looking-at" inbox.

Mutzabaugh:On the subject, I would think the 500-mile upgrades have varying degrees of appeal. If you're flying a 1,400 mile route – like Washington Dulles-Denver, for example – they probably seem like a good value. You redeem three 500-mile upgrades for the 1,400-mile flight, and it's a good match. But if you are flying 600 miles – say Washington Dulles-Chicago O'Hare – it may seem like a waste to use two 500-mile upgrades when it's so close to being a 500-mile flight. What would you say to customers who raise that concern?

Atkinson:I think it's a valid concern. I think it's – again – so many things sound which may sound very easy to fix from a consumer point of view, (but) can lead to not-insignificant technological challenges and changing systems to allow it to happen. But that's something we've heard (and) know is a concern. We don't have a fix for it right now.

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