Earlier today I wrote about my flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles on Hong Kong Airlines. One conversation I had onboard was quite revealing.
The only way I am ever able to get unobstructed cabin pictures is to be the first to board. That often requires a bit of luck, but at the very least requires lining up early to board. Thus, I am always first in line and line up 15-20 minutes before scheduled boarding. We call these people gate lice. That means I also wind up in line with the non-disabled senior citizens and businessmen who always seem to board early for the sake of boarding early…
Anyway, I found myself standing in front of Bill. Bill lives in San Francisco and was on the phone with his partner. I could not help but to overhear the conversation. He heaped great praises on Hong Kong Airlines and said that he was “making the switch” from United after being unable to burn any of his 18 systemwide upgrades this year! He added that Hong Kong Airlines was half the cost of United for a business class ticket. I looked down and noticed a United 1K luggage tag on his carry-on bag.
Since there was still plenty of time before boarding, I started chatting with him. With 18 systemwide upgrades in the bank, that means he earned over 250,000 United elite qualifying miles last year. I was curious if he was Global Services (the invite-only top tier for high rollers on United) but SFO is a tough station and he did not spend enough to qualify. He “only” spent about $30,000 on airfare…
Rather than flying on the nonstop to SFO, he was flying to LAX for business and made the following argument:
Why should I be loyal to an airline that is not loyal back? I buy a lot of business class tickets, but whenever I fly economy I never get upgraded. Not domestically and especially not internationally. All these systemwide upgrades are just going to expire. I have no use for them because they never clear. Hong Kong Airlines has great fares, great food, and great service.
Bill comes to Hong Kong often and has been a United 1K for many years. He’s lifetime Platinum as well by virtue of his 2,000,000 miles flown with United.
But he claims he is making the switch because he gets the same product for half the price. I poked around at fares and found that Hong Kong Airlines really isn’t any cheaper than United. In fact, the only cheap option is Singapore Airlines.
Maybe he has access to cheaper corporate rates; I wish I would have asked him that. As for upgrades on United, I can only speak from my own experience, but there are very few flights this year that I have attempted to upgrade and failed to clear. That includes several international flights. I have the flexibility in my case to schedule times/dates that work best, but the idea that Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) are worthless has not been my experience.
Why not just fly Singapore? Like many, Bill claimed Singapore is fine but the flight times were not ideal and the Singapore business class seat not as comfortable.
A lot of people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I don’t know if Bill is going to really leave United, but I think his argument resonates with many. Those not fortunate to have flexibility in their travel schedules often find their GPUs unusable.
Making GPUs easier to use or clear would go a long way toward ensuring that high-value travelers like Bill remain loyal.