Free Airline Class Upgrade – Yeah, right!

I am a frequent flyer.  That means I pay great amounts of money to put myself in frustrating positions so I will be late to appointments.

I doubt if the airlines would describe it that way; but if they were honest, they would.

So, due to the logistics of where I live, my choice of airlines is pretty limited. There are three airlines right now, and Delta is pulling out at the end of August, leaving us with only two, United Express and Horizon (Alaska’s commuter). Because United goes to more places, I usually take them (begrudgingly) but I think Horizon has better service — by far.

Since I use United, I have a United Frequent Flyer Mileage Plus Credit Card from Chase bank. I get 1 mile for every dollar I spend. In addition, they give me some  great certificates each year.

That’s where my gripe comes in

I have received three – count ’em – three, certificates over the past year from United for a “buy one, get one free” ticket. I book a ticket to anywhere United goes in the continental U.S. and I can bring someone with me. (Restrictions —  loads and loads and loads and loads of restrictions — apply.) I have never been able to use even one certificate, due to the time of year, the flight availability, the choice of airports, the color of my hair, what I’m wearing… It’s just a big pain in the butt to even try. And to make matters worse, you cannot use them on line, you have to call in, wade through 20 minutes of voice mail trees, and then get someone who doesn’t understant what you want.

Got Frustration? You betcha.

So, I call Chase and say I want to know my options. I don’t need to pay $150 a year for the priviledge of being treated like an idiot. I know people who can do that for free.

Chase offers me a lower price card that still gets me the mileage I want, but I lose the useless BOGO certificates. “Fine with me,” I say, “I can’t use them anyway.” They send me my new card and, as a thank you, United sends me two certificates:

  1. One free upgrade on any 1,000 mile ticket
  2. $25 off any ticket

Trying to use them

So, I’m booked to speak at the Cascade Public School System on August 31. I reserve my tickets, and one leg of that ticket is a United flight from Seattle to SFO. It’s under 1,000 miles and it’s one day before the certificate expires. I figure, I might as well try and use it. I normally wouldn’t take a 1st class upgrade on a 700 mile flight (not worth it), but since I have it, what the heck?

Your call is important to us...

Your call is important to us...

I call the number and wade through 15 minutes of voice mail prompts, none of which fit what I’m calling about. (Note to voice mail companies: DO NOT — repeat DO NOT — have your inane voice mail say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you were saying.” It’s a freakin’ machine. It’s not sorry. It’s a lie.  Oops, excuse me, but I feel better now.) Finally, I hook up with Mileage Plus and explain that I want to apply my certificate to the ticket I have on September 1. She tells me that I need to hook up with rservations. (Arrgggh!) She transfers me.

Wait on hold. Insipid music. “We’re sorry… blah blah blah…

Gentleman comes on; to United’s credit, he has the whole story already. OK, I think. They’re at least not making me pass along the whole saga again; good for them.  He looks up the ticket and says, “I’m sorry sir. The certificate you have is not valid for that flight.”

“Why?” I ask, “It’s under 1,000 miles. It’s before the due date.”

“Because you must have a full fare economy ticket. You don’t. You bought your ticket through a travel agency and it’s another class of ticket. So, we can’t apply it.”

“Actually, I bought it through Orbitz, but I guess that’s close enough. So, how can I use it?”

“You’d have to call United and book your ticket directly through us and then we could apply the certificate.”

“Can’t I do it online?” I ask. “I don’t mean to be rude but wading through 25 minutes of voice mail trees just to book a ticket is kind of a pain. It’s much easier to do it on line.”

“No sir. It has to be on-line.”

Discouraged, but not totally surprised, I accept the ruling and move to the next topic.

“OK, I’ve also got this $25 certificate and I need to book some travel later in the year. How do I use that?”

“You call United, book your travel and then send us the certificate and we’ll apply the $25 savings.”

“Can’t I do it online directly through United and then send you the certificate? I won’t use Orbitz, I’ll go direct to United’s site. It’s the same thing.”

“No sir, you have to call us directly. But don’t worry, we won’t charge you a booking fee for using that certificate.”

“Booking fee? I’ve never paid a booking fee.”

“That’s because you book on line. If you call us directly, we charge you a booking fee for issuing your ticket. But in this case, we won’t — and we’ll cut $25 off the ticket price.”

“Oh, OK.” And then a thought crosses my mind. “What happens if I want to use the other certificate – the upgrade one? You said that I have to call directly for that one too. Will you charge me a booking fee?”

“Yes sir, because you called in. But we won’t with the other one.”

“So, to get the upgrade, I have to pay a full fare economy price (does that even make sense?) and a booking fee?”

“Yes sir, those are the rules of that promotion.”

The bottom line

Don’t try to B.S. your customers! Period. End of story. To be honest, I would have been so much happier with United if I never got the certificate that I cannot use, rather than getting one that makes me leap through so many hoops, that it wastes my day and I still can’t use it. For God’s sake, how difficult is it to just make it simple — or don’t do it at all?

Don’t set up expectations that won’t be met. Under-promise, over-deliver.

The American auto industry didn’t get it until too late; your customers are the most important asset you have. Treat ’em poorly and they’ll go elsewhere. (Most of) the airlines still haven’t got the message. The clock is ticking. As soon as there is an alternative, we poor schmucks will be leaving you in the dirt.

So, back to the conversation:

“OK, thank you for explaining.” I’m not going to take out on this poor guy in some far away land; won’t make any difference anyway; plus he’s actually very nice and patient. But I’m disgusted by all the barriers his company places in front of someone simply trying to take advantage of a promotion they provided me.

“Will there be anything else I can do?” asks the nice gentleman.

“No,” I say, but I want to tell him that if he ever visits the U.S., he might want to book his ticket with another airline.

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~ by scottqmarcus on July 12, 2009.

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