United’s new PlusPoints has some benefits to travellers adding flexibility. However, old problems with United’s Global and Regional Premier Upgrades carry over to new situations.
PlusPoints Add Flexibility
One of my favorite things about the switch from Regional/Global Premier Upgrades (RPUs/GPUs) is the flexibility to use upgrades on routes of your preference without burning higher value upgrades. Most of my domestic flights are three hours or fewer and I cleared upgrades without using an instrument on about 70% of my coach tickets in 2019.
The Problem With Connections
Consider the ultimate flight with which to use an RPU (20 PlusPoints from coach to business) Honolulu-Newark. If you have a connection onward to say… oh I don’t know… Pittsburgh, the whole request costs 20 PlusPoints but will use them if any of the segments are upgraded.
There were 39 business class seats on the 9-hour 20-minute flight from the islands to New Jersey and despite nine unsold seats a week out from the flight, I found myself fourth on the upgrade list and sitting in coach. That’s fine, if I wanted business class I should have bought it. However, after sitting in the back for 5,000 miles I really couldn’t care less about a 45-minute flight to Pittsburgh, especially for the same price.
This is not a new problem, this also happened when redeeming GPUs and RPUs in the past.
The Problem With Dropping Requests
The customer solution is one of two options. The first choice is to call in and drop that individual segment, however, that has a consequence for the flyer. The PointsPlus (GPU/RPU) system places those upgrades above status/fare based Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs.) However, by dropping the request in advance of the flight, if the primary targeted flight does clear the chances that the second flight will clear are lower. That’s particularly disappointing because the second upgrade would be “free.”
If, however, a traveler waits until they fail to clear the first segment to cancel the second, their chances of clearing the second upgrade through a CPU are lower. Why? Because some of the seats will have already been assigned to other travellers.
How Does United Fix This?
Software is already doing some of the heavy lifting on this problem. The system automatically drops the single segment charge if the first higher charge clears so it should be possible to set a parameter that says, “if this one doesn’t clear, drop the entire request.”
At the crudest level, flyers should be able to tick a box online when they book their flight and if there is no other option, simply not select the second flight. In my case, I wouldn’t have selected the second flight at all. In that case, I would have kept my original place on the CPU list for Newark to Pittsburgh regardless of whether I cleared the Honolulu leg. Yes, I would have “wasted” an opportunity to move to the top of the upgrade list but I would have also cleared in advance of the flight with others.
Another option would be to place a simple upgrade toggle in the United app and once a traveller no longer wants to use it they toggle it off. This would also be helpful for those who have submitted upgrades for others though I suspect that would be a lot tougher to code.
Regional and Global Premier Upgrades had the same problems but United missed an opportunity when they rolled out the new system to make it better for flyers. There is a cost to United for inaction as well. When I landed in Newark I called the 1K line and had them drop the segment and then cleared the upgrade anyway. My call may have been brief, but call centers cost money and the fewer the calls the cheaper it gets.
What do you think? Is United making PlusPoints upgrades harder than it has to be?