It’s the end of the airline industry as we know it

Airlines don’t exist.

I came to that somewhat Magrittesque conclusion after hearing from Julie Eisenberg, a loyal United Airlines customer who last year spent $1,700 per ticket to fly her partner and herself from Washington to Sydney.

For just $600 more, plus 30,000 miles, United promised her a chance to upgrade into a slightly roomier seat. But the ticket agent she spoke with failed to mention that there were no guarantees and that the money and miles would be deducted from her account then and there, many months before her flight.

“The only way I can get the miles and money back is to cancel my upgrade request,” she says. “They will have possession of the money and the miles from the date I booked, on May 10, 2013.”

Veteran frequent fliers know this is how it’s done at United, of course, but it didn’t sit well with Eisenberg.

“I’m really shocked that it’s OK for them to hold this amount of money and return it after almost a year, paying no interest on it,” she says. “Yet they continue to insist that they can’t confirm our upgrade.”

Why, she wonders, can United get away with that?

Well, there’s a simple answer — and a complicated one.

The simple one: because they can.

An airline is free to set its own rules and policies without government interference. It’s been that way since the industry was deregulated 36 years ago.

The complex — and somewhat controversial — answer: Maybe United is no longer an airline. Maybe it’s a loyalty company that happens to be running an airline.

You see, charging a customer months before a flight for a promise to consider an upgrade into a seat that should be standard on a marathon transpacific flight doesn’t make any sense if you’re an airline that cares about its customers. A caring airline gives all of its passengers a reasonably comfortable seat, no questions asked.

But it makes perfect sense if you’re looking at this from the perspective of a loyalty company trying to prod customers into buying more.

A look at United Airline’s latest annual report shows why it’s no longer entirely accurate to call it an airline. In 2012, it sold $5.1 billion worth of frequent flier miles to credit cards and other third parties. It expects about a quarter of those miles to expire or go unredeemed.

By comparison, United earned $25.8 billion in revenue from its mainline passenger operations for the year. In other words, 1 out of every 5 dollars earned was because of MileagePlus, and worse, it doesn’t always have to give customers something for their purchase. United will only have to honor 4 out of every 5 points earned through one of its partners. (If that number gets too high, no problem! Just devalue the miles, as it did for 2014.)


In 2013, airlines raked in a total of $18.9 billion from the sale of frequent flier miles to program partners, according to an estimate by IdeaWorks. That figure also includes some commissions from the sale of services to travelers. Hotels are less forthcoming, but in a recent conversation with a high-level executive for a major hotel chain, I was told that roughly half of every booking had a loyalty program component and that the programs were a “significant” source of revenue.

Do you really need me to tell you we’re going down the wrong road here?

When travelers clamor for gimmicks in order to be treated just a little more humanely, when the sale of these elusive “rewards” are what makes a company profitable, what has this world come to?

Forgive me for being an idealist, but shouldn’t an airline make money by transporting passengers? Shouldn’t a hotel earn an honest living by selling accommodations?

The tail is wagging the dog, my friends.

So why aren’t any other watchdogs speaking out about this twisted business model, which relies on us paying for an unregulated currency in order to get the benefits all travelers probably deserve?

Perhaps the airlines and credit card companies have built a small army of propagandists masquerading as bloggers and consumer advocates, who obediently endorse the loyalty lifestyle in exchange for six-figure referral fees. Then again, maybe they’re betting customers won’t question the economics behind the offers — that they’ll actually believe the flights and rooms are “free.”

Are we that naive?

I think we’ll find out soon enough. If more consumers blindly sign up and participate in these programs, lining the pockets of airline and hotel company shareholders, then at some point, we won’t have a travel business anymore.

It will be a loyalty industry.

Are loyalty programs controlling the travel industry?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    For just $600 more, plus 30,000 miles, United promised her a chance to
    upgrade into a slightly roomier seat. But the ticket agent she spoke
    with failed to mention that there were no guarantees and that the money
    and miles would be deducted from her account then and there, many months
    before her flight.

    This seems to be contradictory. The first sentence, from the OP, indicates that she knew upfront that there was a chance for a roomier seat if the airline held the miles and cash. But the very next phrase tells us that the OP was shocked that the roomier seat was not guaranteed. A chance, by definition, isn’t a guarantee.

    If the OP didn’t want to take the chance, she didn’t have to. If she wanted a roomier seat, I’m nearly certain she could have paid for it at the time of booking.

    Not only that, but if for some reason she really didn’t understand that the money and miles were to be taken upfront, she can cancel the upgrade request and get them back right now. I don’t understand the consternation on that point.

    But I get it; it’s another jab at loyalty programs. The great thing is – if the OP didn’t want to participate, she didn’t have to. Her original ticket would have cost just as much had she not been a member of Mileage Plus. She could have bought a larger seat too. There was no need to participate in the loyalty program in order to fly.

    The crux of the other argument seems to be that the airline should give everyone a roomier seat anyway. One could debate that, I suppose, but then people like the OP may not be able to fly all the way from Washington to Sydney for $1700! If the seats were roomier, tickets would be more expensive because fewer people would be able fly on the plane. Is that what is being advocated?

  • Christopher Elliott

    It’s $1,700 per ticket, and yes, I’m advocating for minimum standards for legroom and width. Airlines seem to think it’s a crime to want a low airfare, punishable by being forced to sit in a small seat for hours, deprived of food, water and clean air. Only government regulation can fix that misunderstanding.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Usually I want the government out of my business (and their hands off my firearms) but I’m all for regulation for seat width and pitch standards. Cattle being shipped to slaughter have more humane containment standards than a standard domestic coach seat.

  • backprop

    Do you want the government to then regulate the price as well? Or should we only have regulation on width and pitch, and let the chips fall where they may on price?

  • Christopher Elliott

    Personally, I don’t favor turning the clock that far back, to the point where prices are being regulated by the government. But I’m open to anything that solves the problem of inhumane treatment of passengers. Asking for a low fare is not a crime.

  • Asiansm Dan

    The OP should have shop more, Air New Zealand have better deal with their Premium Economy. Less expensive and confirmed excellent service guaranteed, even in normal economy. Air NZ is a Star Alliance too and almost the same Mileage will be credited.

  • Kairho

    Poor argument which looks fine on the surface but doesn’t work in reality. Best example was American’s program a few years ago, more room in coach or something like that. It added a few dollars to tickets and passengers rebelled, at the price, not the space. AA lowered the price and put the seats back to where they were.

    As usual, people want stuff but are unwilling to pay for it. Except for those who really want stuff and pay for a higher class of service to get it.

    (And BTW, there already exist minimum standards. You experience that on every flight. Imagine if the airlines went even lower!)

  • SoBeSparky

    The consumer controls the travel industry, period. There is always room for another non-chain hotel, discount airline, or local rental car firm. To think companies manipulate people into spending money they otherwise would not is to demean humankind. Sure, there are always a few irrational consumers, misspending money. But by and large, we know what we are doing.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Hmmm. This is kind of like going into an appliance store and being told they MIGHT be able to get the fridge you want, but you have to pay for it now.

    So how does this work on United? The upgrade goes to the highest bidder? They see if the next customer is willing to pay an additional $50 and 5,000 miles? And so on, and so on, like an e-bay auction.

  • emanon256

    Veteran frequent fliers know this is how it’s done at United
    Actually, veteran frequent flyers will know that this was never the practice at United, until after the merger with CO, when money hungry Jeff Smisek eliminated almost every customer friendly policy that existed for the airline.

  • MarkKelling

    But United is having great success with its extra legroom section and they have no plans to eliminate it. Maybe AA had other problems that made their customers not want to fly with them?

  • MarkKelling

    Every mileage upgrade on UA I ever tried to do before the CO merger always stated that it was not guaranteed and I never knew if it was confirmed usually until I checked in for the flight. On the other hand, if I chose any type of upgrade on CO it was immediately reflected in my reservation and I was free to pick a seat in the upgraded cabin.

  • emanon256

    I think it’s because AA put extra leg room in every seat, and the majority of people didn’t want to pay for it. UA only has it in a few rows, and there are a small percentage who are willing to pay for it, while the rest don’t, and get less leg room. When I fly on non-business heavy routes on United, and non business heavy travel times, 100% of the non-economy plus is full, while economy plus is completely empty. As the flight is still full, they eventually assign the other passengers to the economy plus seats for free at the gate.

  • MarkKelling

    UA is hoping that passengers will out right purchase the “better” seat so they keep them open as long as possible. They don’t even give the complimentary 1st class upgrades until the last minute any more hoping that someone will walk up and buy the seat. So you get on the list and depending on wether you used all miles, miles and money or all cash to request the upgrade (or you rank high enough in their mileage program) you might get it. But exactly what that ranking is (outside the frequent flyers) only they know and they are not telling.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, she also paid the airline for her ticket that far in advance too and doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. The airline might not even fly that route any more by the time the trip date arrives. Then what?

  • Daddydo

    Yes, the airlines are controlling their passengers, and the un-savy traveler is at the bottom of it all. Did she waitlist a premium seat, a business class seat, or what. I never pay that much for premium qand they are comfirmed at the time of payment! A slighly roomier seat infers premium seating. Depending upon airlines, it means location, window, aisle, 5 inches, pitch of seat, etc, so it really important to know more information. What did Julie Eisenberg waitlist?
    She should be happy that United is returning miles and money with no penalty. Unheard of in this industry. Interest, what dream land are we living in to assume that any airline cares about anything other than cash flow. Will Julie Eisenberg ever get her $10-13 back from United, No! BTW, there are still a few of us out there that could have “confirmed” these seats with our contacts for about the same money. ASTA travel agents know much much more than the airlines and know how to control them to make the customer a confirmed passenger, rather than a waitlisted nobody.

  • emanon256

    I’m talking about taking the money upfront. Pre-merger, United took the miles upfront, but didn’t charge the credit card until check in, and only if the upgrade was confirmed, if it wasn’t confirmed at check in, it wasn’t charged unless it was then confirmed at the gate. Also, pre-merger on both airlines, when I requested an upgrade, I was always told if it could be confirmed or wait-listed before I made the request. If there was upgrade inventory available, it could be confirmed immediately I could pick a seat, if it was wait-listed, I had to wait. That hasn’t changed on either airline, it’s been the same for me pre and post merger. Though they almost never clear post merger.

  • $16635417

    After deregulation and prior to loyalty programs, airlines competed on fares and service. …do we really want to take a step backwards?

  • rwm

    The OP paid for an upgrade with miles and co-pay. This gets you on the upgrade waitlist, along with everyone else. You can, in some cases, “buy up” to First or Business class. You pay the fare difference between the higher class ticket and what you paid for the economy ticket. This allows you to bypass the waitlist and instantly confirms you into the higher class of service. It can be expensive, though, if you bought a discounted economy class ticket.

  • Kairho

    A small section is one thing (UA, DL, others). AA did it to entire coach cabins.

  • ctporter

    Why are airlines different from a cruise ship or a train? All have different “classes” of service, but it seems that airlines that offer roomier seats (main cabin extra, economy plus, etc.) are the only ones that get slammed. I see many people in the main cabin that have no issue with seat width or pitch, but I also see many folks like me that need the extra knee room. For me, I pay the up charge out of pocket because my company does not in consideration of the customer we are serving. I also try hard to select a seat where the person in front of me cannot recline.

  • DavidYoung2

    The airlines will continue to push against consumers until consumers push back. That will be done either by flying a different airline (but really, except for Southwest aren’t they all equally customer-evil?) or by consumers also figuring out they are voters, and pushing REASONABLE regulations.

    Things like “seats must be this wide and this much legroom” seem fair and reasonable, if only from a safety point. You have to be able to exit the plane quickly. The FTC should also mandate that the fare include ONE checked bag, a pre-reserved seat IF that is offered for a fee, any charges for carry-ons, etc. Basically, you have to display the fare for a certain bucket and if you want to allow people to reduce the price by foregoing that item, fine. Do it at the very end of the booking process, just like where they now disclose the add-ons.

    Oh, yeah, FTC, make hotels quote an ‘all in’ price which includes resort fees.

  • backprop


    I’m no airline apologist. But it all comes back to the proof – people will jump ship and fly an airline for as little as a $1 difference in fare. How many occasional airline passengers look up the flight # on seatguru and make a decision based on 1″ additional of pitch before picking based on price? My guess is under 5%.

  • backprop

    I don’t recall anybody being prosecuted for wanting a low fare. So can we stop with the hyperbole and straw man argument already?

    People want a low fare, yes. They choose an airline based on as little as $1 difference in fare. So airlines keep squeezing the product until the fare is low enough for people to buy it.

    As I stated above, I’m not an airline enthusiast. I don’t care much for airplane travel (though I do enjoy traveling). But customers are at least as much to blame as airlines for driving airline prices and service to the lowest common denominator.

  • bodega3


  • backprop

    If consumers wanted such ‘reasonable’ standards, with the understanding that the bottom line price will be proportionally more, then more passengers would pay for things like Premium Economy class. They’d be putting their money where their mouths are.

    Some customers choose to do so; the rest choose to endure coach because it meets their budgets.

    Now, if you were to say that airlines are purposely limiting seating in Premium Economy despite there being overwhelming demand for it, then I’d agree with you. But they’re not to my knowledge. Some customers choose to pay proportionally more for it. The rest talk a lot, but when it comes down to “put up or shut up,” they side with the low fare.

  • backprop

    Thanks for confirming. I wondered that in another post. If an airline was “artificially” keeping supply low on E+, then there’s a problem. But the fact is, most people want to holler about width and pitch, but when it comes down to testing how important it is, they’re just not willing to commit with money.

    Economy Plus/Main Cabin Extra, etc., is a perfect test of who actually is willing to pay for mandated standards. It weeds out the talkers from the doers.

  • Extramail

    I have not liked the loyalty programs for years and I have benefited from them. I maybe fly four times a year and I haven’t purchased a ticket in years because my husband flies an inordinate amount of miles each year. He is one of those who gets upgraded virtually every flight because he is a captive audience to the predominant airline from his hub. But, I will tell you that I will not fly without him on my flight because I would have to pay for a bag, pay for a reasonable seat (are any seats truly comfortable?) and pay to get to board early enough to find room to stow my carry-on. In other words, I refuse to be treated like a sub-human because I don’t fly enough to qualify for “special” treatment. I understand the early thinking of the loyalty programs but, I believe, the airlines have let them get out of control. I still have gracious plenty miles left to use but I’d be all for scrapping the loyalty programs and treating every customer the same again.


    Another week, another rant about loyalty programs.
    I wonder what part of “a chance of an upgrade” the OP did not understand. Chance is never a guarantee and she had to have a good idea of this when she booked. And even a basic traveler (which she probably is not) know to ask when will my card be charged and the miles deducted. I do not fly UA except when I have no other option,but I do know those extra room seats are available to confirm for a higher fare. I think all coach seats on long haul flights should have additional room simply because of the health factor, but airlines now charge for the extra space. So because OP is a less than savvy consumer we get treated to another diatribe against loyalty programs.
    Do I think loyalty programs are the root of all airline evil? No I do not. These programs hold some responsibility. But if we really want to see the cause of all the problems with airlines we need look no further than the nearest mirror. As travelers we have demanded lower and lower fares. The airlines complied and we still wanted lower. When I first began traveling to Europe regularly (in 1983) I was used to paying nearly $1000 per ticket–sometimes higher and sometimes lower. Ticket fares dropped steadily through the years. And as priced dropped so did service. And then space on the plane got smaller. And meals got worse (never good to start with) and then vanished on many flights. And we continued to demand lower fares. I travel for a living and have watched service and space decline for years along with fares. It is a never-ending spiral at this point.
    I am not an airline apologist and do not work for one and have never worked for one. But I also understand that consumers are responsible for part of the debacle we now see and until we rebel against it, the airlines will continue to treat those of us in the back of the plane as little more that peasants.
    Complain all you want about loyalty programs but in this instance the problem is with a flyer that either ignored or did not care to know about the implications of what she was doing. Ill-informed customers are the best friends of any industry trying to sell something.

  • omgstfualready

    Thank you! I believe in a free market and things change by how consumers act or do not act. The same people screaming about getting more for less are likely not realizing their mutual fund likely has these stocks in their portfolio and are in fact gaining when others lose. Which is fine, but don’t think you can have it at both ends. Companies have shareholders to please and we, collectively, are those shareholders. Screaming for more amenities for less or the same money will affect you when your ROI goes down and/or your dividends go down and now you will rail at your investment plan for bad choices.

  • Bill___A

    For my loyalty, I get to go into the Star Alliance Gold Lounges (including the UAL ones). I get up to three overweight bags at no charge (not that I carry overweight ones). I get to board near the front of the line. I get to use the first class check in. I get a special phone number to call and I don’t really often wait on hold that long. I’ve gotten more than a few upgrades, which have been nice. Wouldn’t have paid for them otherwise. The points are not as useful as they used to be, but certainly the other perks are nice to have. That’s why I participate.
    Rant all you want, I get good value out of it.

  • flutiefan

    you seriously think you know “much much more than the airlines”? how arrogant. and your use of “the airlines” shows ignorance — they aren’t all the same, they are separate entities who happen to run the same type of business. Do you say “the car dealerships” or “the department stores”, too?
    and glad to know you “control” us. here I thought I was my own person.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That was my first thought, as well. Also, unless something else came up where she really wanted to use those miles, I don’t see how committing the miles upfront was a problem, either. Both the money and the miles were forms of payment and it was a pay upfront transaction.

  • Regina Litman

    Can someone please tell me what Magrittesque means? Please answer here directly in case others are wondering, too, not as a link to Wikipedia or elsewhere. Thanks in advance.

  • Carchar

    To add insult to injury, Julie Eisenberg, be sure to watch your credit card statements if your upgrade does not come to fruition. Whenever I upgrade my seats on a UA international flight using miles + currency, and I don’t get that upgrade, I have to go after them for the return of my miles and money 100% of the time. The website says the miles and money are refunded automatically, but the automation needs an aggressive nudge.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I”d guess wayyy less than that. I agree. We say we want better, but when given the choice we pick cheaper. Its impossible to have both. Cheaper seems to win out overall.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No, not really. The big difference is that the appliance in the store is being sold at full price. The upgrade is heavily discounted and accordingly it is only being sold if the regular full priced seat is unsold, i.e. the leftovers. Given the limited time, the airline needs a commitment.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    This is perfectly proper business procedure. The airline is sellng leftovers if you will. The number of unsold seats varies from flight to flight. Plus, there are any number of people who are happy to purchase the upgrade, so the airline needs to commitment from the traveler that they are serious.

    This is not uncommon in other potentially discounted venues. When you are purchasing foreclosure homes, it is normative to be required to put down a deposit to be even allowed to bid. That’s because time is of the essence and the auction house doesn’t have time to fool around with wannabees.

  • Christopher Elliott

    The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte is best known for his work The Treachery of Images. The picture shows a pipe. Below it, Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, French for “This is not a pipe.” It is one of my favorite paintings.

    In this context, Magrittesque refers airlines that are, in fact, not airlines, but loyalty companies — despite their insistence to the contrary.

  • BMG4ME

    I am struggling to see the problem here. In return for some miles and money she gets an upgrade. If she no longer wants the upgrade she cancels the upgrade and gets the miles back (for a fee probably as is usual with most airlines). What am I missing?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    I think many people expect too much out of loyalty programmes. They were & always will be, designed to fill seats that airline can’t sell at a reasonable fare.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Simple answer. Chris hates airline loyalty programs.

  • CeeJay

    Maybe if airlines put more into advertising the differences? And guaranteeing them? I may look up the seat on seatguru, and decide to pay more based on the extra 1″ of pitch, but I run the risk of them switching planes or anything else. How many times haven’t we heard that all they have to do is get you from A to B?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    With airlines having multiple planes in their respective fleets, it becomes difficult, particular for the legacy airlines, to advertise differences, especially in steerage, er…coach

  • CeeJay

    Exactly – which is why many people are reluctant to pay more for something that they may not get due to equipment changes.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t think that the average leisure flier thinks in terms of aircraft type and equipment changes when purchasing tickets.,

    My take: Airlines have taken the position that our only job is to get you from Point A to Point B. In doing so, they commoditized coach air travel. The problem for the airlines is that a commodity item lacks brand differentiation (if brands even exists in that market). Thus, most of the coach market shops on one metric, i.e. price.

    It’s like when you buy bulk produce. There are no commonly known brands of Apples. If Kroger sells Brand A apples for $1.00/lb, it cannot simultaneously sell Brand B apples for $1.10/lb. No one would buy Brand B apples. Coach air travel work often works the same way.

    AA learned this the hard way. American Airlines added 1-3 inches of seat pitch to all of its aircraft
    and heavily promoted MRTC (More Room Through Coach). Unfortunately, the
    traveling public viewed coach air travel as a commodity and still shopped solely by price.

  • brianguy

    she got her money back. really, who cares about her complaint then?… amazed it took her 8 months to find out her upgrade wasn’t confirmed – ever read the fine print much, or ask more than 1 question at time of booking? all she had to do was request this upgrade at time of check-in and they’ll tell her whether it’s available or not. check in early for the best chance.

    there’s no first-come-first-served upgrade with United or most other major U.S. carriers… should there be? what airline would be crazy enough to do this? it almost defeats the purpose of selling the full price Economy Plus seat at all.

  • brianguy

    great point

  • backprop

    That’s what they tried to do before deregulation, and that’s what AA failed when it tried ‘more room throughout coach.’ It’s not that people don’t know or aren’t empowered to know the differences. They just don’t care, as a whole, and choose on price only.

  • Christopher Elliott

    That is provably false. Please stop making that claim on my site.

  • bodega3

    Carver is correct in his post, as that is how you come across in your articles about the programs.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    This is known as the economy plus/non-check in gamble: You don’t check in online and wait until you reach the airport. You hope that all the space in regular economy is full and the gate agent puts you into economy plus. However… if economy isn’t full you get stuck by the toilet. OR you may even get bumped off the flight if it’s full.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I was just researching prices for my in-laws to come visit. A United fare is about $30 cheaper than Austrian Air. Austrian Air has tiny seats (my gymnast wife complained and for her to complain…) BUT we love the service and food. The Austrian wine is good and they have the special meal option of seafood (only other airlines I’ve seen with special seafood meals are Asian.) So I’ll probably book Austrian based upon service and amenities. However, the layover is shorter for United: 2 hours versus 4 in Vienna. So it’s a complex decision. But yes, I”ll pay about $50 more for a pleasant transatlantic experience.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    “An airline is free to set its own rules and policies without government
    interference. It’s been that way since the industry was deregulated 36
    years ago.”

    I think that statement is unfair. Even before 36 years ago, an airline could set it’s own policies provided they didn’t conflict with the law just as they do now. An airline cannot set a policy that says a passenger cannot get a refund for a fare within a 24 hour period after booking, for example.

    I googled the airline deregulation act and found the following shocking cite: “The Carter administration argued that the industry and its customers
    would benefit from new entrants, the end of price regulation, and
    reduced control over routes and hub cities”

    Hell hath truly frozen over. Keep in mind that before the deregulation act, smokers puffed away on flights and in the waiting area and people dressed up to fly because it was considered expensive and rare to travel. My wife and I always travel “business casual”, FYI.

    Why the smaller seats? I think in some ways, the people are just getting fatter, er, bigger. Also, after deregulation, several newer airlines appeared and prices fell and before 911, without a significant loss of service. After 911, costs soared and the airlines have controlled the rise with significant success and shielded consumers. It costs money to make you wait at security, to pay more for jet fuel due to carbon credits/restrictions on drilling on federal lands, and to outsource service to other countries who mess it up and the CEO’s run off with a golden parachute.

    Hmmm, kind of makes me MISS the Carter days:

    Temporary lay offs. – Good Times.

    Easy credit rip offs. – Good Times.

    Scratchin’ and surviving. – Good Times.

    Hangin in a chow line – Good Times.

    Ain’t we lucky we got ’em – Good Times.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I did some googling and found this: “The United Kingdom is the only country that has regulations defining
    the minimum size of passenger seats and the space between seats. These
    regulations apply to all aircraft registered in the UK.”

    My research found that regulations appear to restrict how many passengers they can cram onto a particular plane in total. This would make it kind of like the Titanic where steerage gets crammed belowdecks and United makes those lie-flat beds in first. As long as they keep below the maximum passenger number, they’re fine.

    In the case of international travel (which is the case here), the passenger will be getting a free meal (but no free alcohol which may be a good thing as far as some FA’s are concerned), and a water/beverage. For domestic travel, they can buy food if they want if they’re in bottom economy. When I took a ferry from Gdansk to Stockholm, I had to pay for my own meal too. (But it was so reasonable and good, I couldn’t complain.)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m not sure if this was the cause of AA’s woes. But certainly, it would be interesting to know if consumers care more about unadvertised “hard product” such as seat pitch/width, free check in bag, free meals, liberal change/cancellation policies versus glamorous soft product add ons such as internet (almost always with a service fee!) and IFE systems or just plain lower prices.

    When I shop a fare, I always take the above factors into play along with the itinerary/route (even riding on Jabba-the-Hut’s barge for 4 hours non-stop from NYC to Chicago beats having to transfer through Atlanta.) I’ll confess: If the hated Spirit Airline offered me a fare from DC to Arizona to visit my sister for $200RT, I’d consider it. My wife and I would cram EVERYTHING we own into a single checked bag and I’d take an ambien to dull the pain for the flight but I’d do it. But for a $60 difference? No way.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Hahaha! My in-laws LOVE it when I book tickets for them because I do online check in while most passengers via aeroflot or British Airways seem to just wait to go to the airport. So at 23 hours, 59 minutes before departure, I grab seat 11A/C for them. My wife says they’re now spoiled rotten at sitting in the front of the plane and getting the choice of meals (meat!)

    This proactiveness saved my tail during a memoriable trip where the damn travel agent reserve me a seat next to the lavatory. During online check in, I caught this and got a seat further up. I was the last row before things went meatless.

    Regarding AA’s more room throughout coach. I noticed when my wife and I flew Jetblue a few years ago that the economy plus area was a ghost town. That was thousands of dollars in revenue seats burning empty. The best way for an airline to make money is whether they have big seats or small seats, sell ALL of them. Elite flyers love to get upgrades for free from unsold business class seats. It’s enraging them that the airlines are now offering paid upgrades to bums in coach. Austrian offered me the option to bid for an upgrade. I put in $100. It wasn’t accepted. Which was ok, we like Austrian coach.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    A good travel agent is worth gold. But they all have their own set of contacts. My old agent in Los Angeles had knowledge of a great route from LAX to Europe via a consolidator. I got great fares on a great airline but with the bottom rate ticket (same as economy, but it was like a super discounted fare, non-refundable/changable) BUT I got frequent flier miles. They were amazing.

    However, I was on my own for seat reservations and trying to get upgrades. Some other agents are masters of that though.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No disrespect is intended. The claim is my perception based upon the numerous articles posted and the descriptive phrases used, such as “catering to the intellectually challenged…” ergo, the claim.

  • Christopher Elliott

    True, I am a loyalty program critic, but I’ve gone on the record to say that I participate in several worthwhile airline programs. Therefore, it’s impossible that I hate airline loyalty programs.

    But I guess it’s more convenient to call me a “hater” and dismiss my unusually well-reasoned and highly persuasive blog posts on the subject.

    Oh well, feel free to do whatever you want. I’ve also been called a “frequent flier hater” an “airline hater” and a “travel agent hater” in the past.

    So absurd, it’s not even worth responding to.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    This may explain why my mailbox for two months has been jammed full of United credit card offers for my wife and I. I considered it for a while, but grew suspicious about availability. Even if I made the miles, would I be able to book or get blacked out? Lufthansa which is affiliated with United via the star alliance also sent my wife and I offers but they charge fuel surcharges which makes the “free” tickets almost worthless.

    10 years ago or so the loyalty programs were great but the golden days are over.

  • Lindabator

    Unfortunately, although the pitch of seats have changed – the problem is OUR widths have changed over the years. So who is to blame in that case?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Good point. My suspicion is that the more frequent the traveler, the more the hard product matters. But I have no hard data.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Amen. I remember back in the day when flying was an expensive and rare thing. We flew once a year and no more. Now we hop a plan whenever.

  • bayareascott

    You might get a good seat or a bad seat, but if you try this option, you certainly have no right to complain about it.

  • bayareascott

    No fee for this.

  • TonyA_says

    High Fructose Corn Syrup

  • TonyA_says

    If she asked me, I would tell her to buy a ticket on NZ Spaceseats Premium Economy.
    Not sure why people still like United. What’s there to like?

  • TonyA_says

    Chris, I think you need to do a little math.
    She paid about 7.8 cents per mile to the airline. What really do you expect for that cheap rate? Really honestly?

  • Asiansm Dan

    And the Air New Zealand food is awesome, even in Economy.
    Flight from Auckland have excellent Lamb on menu.
    I don’t work for Air NZ, just a regular transpacific satisfied passenger of Air NZ, even from the date their flight begins with TE instead of NZ like today..

  • brianguy

    the airlines still make at least 5x as much revenue flinging people around as they do selling airline miles for upgrades (20% of which will never be redeemed, but 80% will).

    yep still an airline.

  • Justin

    As my mom and I go through my grandparents house after their passing, we’ve come across retro clothing from the 60s and 70s. Groovy :). To quote my mom “I doubt a size 13 from the 60s or 70s is anywhere near a size 13 today”. I bets its probably called a 7 or 8 to make people “feel better” as we’ve gotten larger in girth.

  • Justin

    Being short and skinny has advantages. I can fit in any small space :) so no need for upgrade. I would like a better seat pitch though.

  • gracekelley

    Exactly money talks and bullsh*$ walks.
    Consumers are just as much at fault for the state of things as the airlines are.
    You wanted cheaper fares in exchange for certain things that once were free but now that’s not the case they all want even cheaper seats plus everything that used to come with it.
    Most travelers these days don’t even have the slightest idea that the department of transportation tracks complaints and if they do they can’t be bothered to log a complaint to anyone but the airline.
    I’m afraid people will see soon that the beluved Southwest business model is changing and it’s looking alot like the rest of the carriers. Things are deplorable back in coach yes, but you still get transportation to places in hours where it took weeks or months before and it’s safer than it’s ever been to fly.

  • Joe Farrell

    you know what it costs just in fuel to fly a seat from SFO-SYD? Its a 7400 statute mile flight at a cruise speed averaging 500mph with a 777 engines burning 35 gallons of jet fuel per min? $375 – just in fuel. She paid $850 for that ticket and it has at least $100 of taxes and fees in it – so United got about $750 for that trip and is spending $375 of that just in fuel. Add in the cost of the two full fight crews, plus the ground staff, the flight attendants, maintenance burden – etc . . . They are prob barely breaking even on that flight . . .

    As for the whiny complaint . . . what part of ‘give us the money now and maybe we’ll give you a premium economy seat later’ was unclear?

    United makes its rules – its up to the customer to decide if they wish to follow them There is no reason why a person should use an American airline to travel to Australia . . . I’d fly Qantas or Virgin Australia Premium Economy . . . for literally just a few dollars more.

  • Joe Farrell

    See, Bodega did not get a minus!

  • Joe Farrell

    no one is buying a full fare first class seat on United to OZ when you can, for less money, get the full private suite on the Qantas A380 flight . . . I wonder how many seats in F or A have been sold in the last 365 days . . . F seats are solely for upgrading their best customers . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    Loyalty programs do save me money. . . . and I just proved it.

    We need to be in Boston for Easter. The day after Easter is the Marathon. Hotels are full. Airlines are charging over $800 a ticket to travel from Los Angeles to Boston.

    My Gold status with Hilton means I can get a reservation anywhere I want – when the hotels are full – you can get a preferred room at a fair price.

    Next – airline tickets. I was able to get 2 50,000 mile round trip tickets, non-red eye and in first class [meaning I was able to access the lower level F class tickets for the same price as the only available coach tickets]. Given that First class is $2500 round trip or so – even on Virgin America – my loyalty to an airline, coupled with buying everything from fast food to paying taxes using that airline’s credit card, means that this 4 days trip will not be full of discomfort and travel shock. . . .

    Given that coack tickets were between $800 and $900 I started looking at award tickets . . . . we are going back for a wedding on July on 4th of July weekend and I have already bought those and got three of them for less than one and one-half of the prices the airlines were asking for April . . .

    Chris – loyalty programs do work. But you need to be loyal enough that the airline makes some money from them . . , and you.

  • Andy Shaindlin

    Basic arithmetic error here:

    “[United] sold $5.1 billion worth of [MileagePlus] frequent flier miles….
    United earned $25.8 billion in revenue from its mainline passenger operations…
    1 out of every 5 dollars earned was because of MileagePlus…”

    No. I believe you’re trying to calculate the fraction of ALL revenue that came from FF miles.

    It’s 1 out of every 6 dollars.

    5.1 + 25.8 = 30.9 in total revenue.
    5.1/30.9 = 0.17, or 1/6, fraction of revenue from frequent flier miles.