United Airlines rolled out a new website earlier this year that offered customers the ability to hold award space if they had insufficient miles, a tremendously helpful feature to eliminate the risk of buying or transferring miles. Despite assurances from new CEO Oscar Munoz that “I will dedicate myself to making our airline flyer-friendly” the ability to hold space without sufficient miles has silently disappeared, a move that could not be more flyer-unfriendly.
Award Holds on the New United.com
When the new united.com rolled out, there were four options for holding award space, depending upon the itinerary and your mileage balance.
If you had sufficient miles and your award ticket involved a partner airline, your only option was to ticket immediately.
If your flights were exclusively on United metal, if you had sufficient miles you could either ticket immediately or chose “FareLock”, United’s paid-hold option. You could then pay for either a 3-day or 7-day hold. If you did not have sufficient points, your only option to proceed was choose FareLock.
If you were booking a partner flight and did not have sufficient miles but were close, usually needing no more than 40,000 miles, the only option available on united.com was to purchase the additional miles necessary in order to immediately confirm the trip. One problem with this was that when United was running a special discount on purchased miles, this option would only sell miles at the regular price, not the sale price.
Lastly, and best of all, if you were really short on miles, again typically anything over 40,000 miles short, the new united.com gave you the option to hold the fare for about 48 hours, allowing you to either buy or transfer the number of points necessary.
This option is now gone. Instead, if you are far short of the necessary mileage required the payment page gives you no option to proceed forward:
United Claims Too Many People Never Ticketed Held Award Reservations
I reached out to United to ask about this policy change and spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told me the following via e-mail:
The new United.com offers a much improved award-booking experience compared to the previous site. We removed the hold functionality to better ensure that customers who have sufficient mileage balances are able to book awards, where previously many customers who didn’t were holding seats that they subsequently cancelled. Customers without sufficient miles who wish to book an award may purchase miles during booking in order to confirm the seat, without the need to hold the award.
What United is claiming is that too many people were holding award reservations and then not ticketing them, taking away award space from those who would otherwise book it who already had sufficient miles. That’s actually a fair point, but a definite overreaction: United threw the baby out with the bathwater in making this change. To understand why, we must understand the inherent risks of buying or transferring miles without having a reservation on hold.
The new united.com may well be visually appealing, but it is full of bugs — the award search tool is even less accurate than the old website and every day I run into false-positives; space that appears available on united.com but is not actually bookable.
This is true for select space on Aer Lingus, Air China, ANA, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, and lately even on United’s own metal. Sometimes an error message appears immediately when the flight with “phantom” award space is selected and sometimes united.com will work its way through the entire booking process before erroring out. In some instances, an award flight purchase can even be “completed” with the space never actually confirmed and the reservation will not ticket though it will sit in a ticket queuing process for several days.
Say a family of four is looking to go to Europe next summer and sees four seats on Aer Lingus from Los Angeles to Dublin. They are short by 210K miles so they purchase the points from United and then go back to ticket the reservation — the space is actually not there. Say a family looking to go to China on a family trip sees Air China space and transfers in 300K miles from Chase to United, an irreversible transfer. Once the family finds the Air China space is not actually there, their versatile Chase points are now stuck in United with an 18-month expiration date.
There are less innocuous examples as well — space comes and goes quickly and sometimes that brief 10-minute period between transfer and booking is long enough for someone else to book the space. The bottom line is this: you are putting yourself at great risk if you transfer or purchase United points without having the reservation on hold, especially when dealing with united.com. There is a sizable risk the space will actually not be bookable.
Removing the ability to hold space is a hostile customer-service move. It even goes against United’s self-interest: if customers do hold space and never ticket it, it makes it less likely another United customer will ticket the space, saving United the cost of reimbursing its award partners for flown flights.
United Rewrites History
Just months ago, USA Today’s Road Warrior Voices (RWV) reported that the ability to hold award was a “permanent” feature of the new united.com.
But that article, like United’s award hold policy change, has silently been re-written. It now appears:
Johnson acknowledged the article but said, “what I emailed to him and what he wrote are not in alignment”. The change was made over the weekend after I brought this article to United’s attention.
Why Award Holds Are Critical
What United may not fully understand is the tremendous value add that the ability to hold award space brings to an airline loyalty program. Let’s again note the abundance of technical errors and erroneous information on the new united.com, a virtual landmine for all but the most seasoned of united.com users. This is not an exaggeration on my part!
United’s failure to correct the glaring phantom award space issues on its new website amounts to a “bait and switch” for consumers who have a reasonable expectations that the world’s third-largest airline would properly display flights for sale.
But it goes beyond even that — the beauty of award holds is that they allow planning. Putting a trip together is no easy task and many pieces have to fall into place, though the most important are typically hotel + flight. Putting award space on holds allows a bit of breathing room to find and book hotels, which may also require the purchase and transfer of points. A 24-hour cool-off period applies to United award ticket too, but that does not help if miles are already transferred in.
A Proposed Compromise: Phone Holds
American Airlines allows five-day award holds and Delta does not allow award holds. While United has been known to only mimic Delta, the “compromise” of a ~36-48 hour hold for accounts without sufficient miles was a good one. Still, if United is worried about too many people booking award space and then not actually ticketing one solution may be to allow holds over the phone. Calling United, waiting on hold, then spending the time to build the award itinerary with an agent is going to deter those who are not really interested in ultimately ticketing. Compared to the ease of holding online, this would certainly be a less efficient method of holding awards, but still allow discerning customers to remove the risk before buying or transferring points.
I return again to CEO Munoz’s promise to make United a much more customer-friendly airline. This policy change comes as Munoz is on leave recovering from his heart attack. Could it be that this was done without his knowledge? In any case, I hope that United will rethink this policy change and understand that helping customers take the risk out of booking award space will go a long way toward earning loyalty and trust back at a time in which United, have squandered so much under the failed leadership of ex-CEO Jeff Smisek and his team, could really stand to earn some back.