The one thing I’ll Never Use Mileage Plus Miles For…

… Is a flight on United Airlines.


That’s right. I’ll book a hotel room instead. Or a flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo on ANA. Or perhaps I’ll get a magazine subscription, but I’ve had too many friends report dismal experiences with the “Flyer Friendly” airline that a reward flight actually feels like a waste of those miles in comparison. Over the last two years, I’ve been subject to a plethora of these tales of woe, some even from former flight crew members (who have since moved on to Blue-er pastures). So for me, Mileage Plus is the little loyalty program I earn miles in even though I have zero loyalty to the airline it’s associated with.

So what on earth could have compelled me to sign up for the Mileage Plus Explorer credit card in February 2013? In retrospect, it was totally an act of practicality. Even though the last time I had flown United was in 2004, the card was free for the first year and I was planning a visit to a city whose airport was served by only two airlines– United being one of them. And I was also seeking out just about any source of miles with which I could cover some of the costs of our Japan trip. So I took one trip with United Express, put some of our regular expenses on the card, and pocketed about 50,000 miles. And the Express flight was quite nice, but I flew someone else to their hub instead of UA Mainline. I’m just not enough of a masochist to deal with United’s sad confulence of useless customer service & social media teams, painfully spotty inflight Wi-Fi, and UA’s  legendary inflight team.

Many people would also add flight delays with united to that list, and FAA statistics do suggest a less than stellar record. Current flight data for 2013 (which has only been compiled through October 31) shows that 19.7% of United Flights were delayed an average of about an hour:

Snapshot of United flight delays 1/13-10/13The data also suggests that most of that hour-long average delay isn’t weather-related. But in all fairness, United’s delay track record falls in line pretty close with American Airlines, which clocks in at 20.7% of their flights. And Delta? 15%, though that still accounts for over 95,000 flights delayed.

All things considered, I’m willing to cut United a little slack for flight delays since there’s little chance they’ll ever come close to besting Hawaiian (6.5%) or Alaska (12.2%) in terms of on-time service. But they also operate a considerably larger number of flights than either of those airlines. The downside of having a route network as large as UA or AA however is that there are so many more opportunities to make mistakes. And mistakes do happen.

But that’s not enough to move them out of the “airlines of last resort” rank in my book. In fact, I think the only airline I’m less interested in flying is Spirit. And what’s really sad is that United’s leadership keeps on making decisions that devalue their customer experience. Take for instance, their decision to stop giving away wine and beer in all classes of service on transatlantic flights (It’s still free in the front of the plane, just not in the back). This may seem like a little thing to some, but to the hundreds of thousands who fly to Europe in coach it’s a pretty big deal. A glass or two of wine is one of those things that makes eight hours on a plane a bit more bearable. It might make it easier for you to fall asleep. It might relax your nerves. It might lift your mood. And now you have to pay for that little tipple if you’re bound for London on United metal.

Luckily, United’s competition hasn’t followed suit. And strangely, they’ve committed to continuing wine & beer service on their international transpacific flights. Perhaps this is the start of an overall shift towards serving the Asian markets more and the European ones less. And if they have exponentially fewer economy passengers on those birds hopping back and forth to the EU over the coming year, that could very well happen. I don’t think anyone who’s ever flown British Airways, Air France or Virgin Atlantic would even bat an eyelash.

As for myself, I’ll just quietly empty out my Mileage Plus account in a way that gives me a value beyond whatever a transcon ticket could fetch dollar-wise. I’ll trade them in for experiences that I find enriching because you can’t measure those kinds of things with dollars. There’s a much more valuable currency being handed over: Smiles.

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