Searching for the holy grail

United keeps moving my cheese. In a few days, United is dramatically increasing the number of miles required for a free award ticket to Australia. Trying to beat the increase, I called up United to try to book tickets. (I would book online, but United has one of the worst award booking interfaces in the industry.)
Knowing that seats are hard to come by I was prepared to be flexible. The agent asked when I wanted to travel.


“You don’t have a specific date in mind?”

“The tickets are probably hard to come by, whenever you can find them.”

After about 10 minutes of typing he has worked his way to mid-February and lets me know he’s still working. Another 5 minutes or so and he has exhausted the month.

“How about March?” He puts me on hold. It could be worse; at least I get to listen to “Rhapsody in Blue”.

After another 10 minutes or so, he comes back on the line to tell me there are no seats available in the entire month of March.

Probably sensing that I was about to say, “What about April?” he said “There’s a problem with my system. Would you mind calling back?”

All told, 24 minutes of agent time spent on a fruitless task.

If the airlines are going to allocate such few seats to award inventory, they should at least make it easier to find what is available. There’s no way in the United system (according to the agent) to find the next available date. He had to search each day individually.

Where’s the business model in providing better tools?

  • Reduced call center expenses. The 24 minutes the agent spent with me was time that could have been spent generating revenue.
  • Decreasing the liability of miles. Airlines record miles as a liability on their balance sheet. It’s in their interest to fill seats that would otherwise go empty.
  • Prevent the collapse of their micro economies. Think of each frequent flier program as a micro economy. The more airlines devalue their miles by raising award levels or making available seats hard to find, the less the public will care about accumulating miles. This can turn into a significant problem for the airlines, because they make a lot of money selling miles to partners such as credit card companies. Chase/BankOne/First USA has been one of United’s biggest backers during its bankruptcies, largely because of the promotional power of Mileage Plus miles in driving wallet share of Chase VISA cards.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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