Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn't cost any more to get 4 single legs, it's just a lot more work for you and the airline.

When I needed to change it, they said, no, there was no way to just use the return leg. I must cancel or not use the entire trip. To cancel and re-credit the miles is $250 for 2 passengers -- so much for free. To re-book the one-way leg another $200 or so. The original booking was $125 in fees. That's a bunch. Had I booked it as independent trips, I could have used my return leg, and just refunded or re-used the outgoing leg. I decided to re-use the whole trip and buy a paid fare ticket. Perhaps that's what they wanted, but now if I want flexibility I must jump through hoops booking, and make them jump too.

b) The alternate trip was to Brussels. I booked a flight with one flight number that stops and changes flights in Chicago. It's really two flights but with one number. Many other alternatives existed that were really two flights with different numbers. On checking in, I found that there were business class seats available. Normally on United, if you have status, that means a complimentary upgrade to busines class on the domestic flights. But because I booked it as one flight, I have no domestic flight. Other people on the same flight to Chicago with me are getting upgraded because they are not flying on to Europe while I'll sit in coach. It's not a long flight, but still. Next time, never book a single flight unless that's what you really want, which you may do if it's the same plane and that reduces your risk of lost luggage and gets you better seats. In this case, there is no advantage to the single flight number it seems, and a big loss.

Of course, phone staff have no power to make things right. Sigh.

End of rant.


I have similar experiences with several airlines. I changed from LH to UA 3 years back and still have LH miles which I tried
to use now. A miles & more ticket Duesseldorf to Montreal is at 60000 miles plus 618.36 CAD fees.

For the same dates you get a similar flight on expedia (Going leg identical, return leg different routing but also 1 stop) for
696 CAD. Identical flights (but not a LH ticket) go for 765 CAD. If you insist on LH paper it's 1166 CAD.

The Fee structure tends to be a bit better at

You are being treated to the tender mercies of revenue management systems. These automated beasts were first developed in the '80s to allow American Airlines to defeat a discount carrier. RM's optimize the revenue on a flight by selling low when they have to, and selling high when they can. Because these decisions are not made real time, they create a thicket of ever changing weirdness in pricing. However, they work really well, which is why aircraft are usually full these days.

They use AI and linear programming and various models as part of their work. I have run across these in my work in the hotel reservation business, which also uses them. When they set the fares, they are looking at history and then modeling current demand against that (and other factors) to calculate the price. Airlines used to use humans to do this, but the modern systems are much more effective (and weird).

In the airline world, customer satisfaction has taken a back seat (okay, way back in the tail cone) to price competition. That's how they can get away with treating us this way. It may piss you off royally, but they make more money doing it - even as everyone is growing to loathe the airlines.

But that is not the case here. Here it's just bureaucracy. If I had booked the flight as two one-way flights, at no extra cost, I would have been able to change one leg. If I had booked a slightly different flight to Europe with a similar plane change and also a flight number change, I would have gotten the upgrade offer.

I agree that revenue management causes all sorts of strange things, but these are not among them.

My general view is that when you have a business like this, you should have a desk that is able to authorize changes when the airline is clearly doing something silly and bureaucratic. Escalate to that desk if it seems that has happened, and if that happens a lot, fix the software.

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