United’s business class bait and switch

I fly United frequently.  I’m generally a fan; they have a decent mileage program, good partnerships, and reasonably good service on most of my flights.  For the last few years they have been upgrading their international fleet with new seating in business.  These seats are true parallel-to-the-floor, flat bed sleeper seats, and have been a welcome change from their previous recliner-style offering.

With the new seats came some changes to the upgrade system.  United began collecting a “co-pay” for upgrades confirmed with frequent flier miles.  The dollar amount depends on two factors: the distance of the journey and the fare paid.  Generally, a shorter flight where the passenger paid a higher fare will have a lower co-pay than a longer route purchased on a steep discount.

To capture the most revenue, United charges a co-pay on all business class mileage upgrade awards, including routes that still fly the old configuration planes.  While the aircraft retrofits are getting closer to completion, there are still a number of 777 aircraft that have the old-style recliner seats.  Last week I confirmed an upgrade for a client on a Chicago – Tokyo flight.  The aircraft was swapped out at the last minute, and she ended up in a recliner instead of a flat bed.  This may sound trifling (it’s still much better than coach, after all) but she paid 30,000 miles and $600 for the privilege.

So even if you think you’ve confirmed an upgrade to United’s new flat bad business class seat, beware of last-minute aircraft changes.  In similar circumstances, United should make a point to refund the cash co-pay (if not the miles) for the inconvenience and unmet expectations.

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