United Takes Away Customer Ability to View Upgrade Inventory Online (Website ‘Expert Mode’)

United announced yesterday that they were removing the ability to see the seats availability by fare class on their website (so-called “expert mode”).

They explained their reasoning:

[F]or many customers who are not as familiar with the ins and outs of fare structures, there was often room for this information to be misinterpreted. It also left the door open for undesired exposure that allowed automated scripts to scrape and re-display information in ways for which it was not intended.

In other words, (1) too much information in the hands of customers isn’t something they wanted to deal with, and (2) they didn’t like that other websites and tools accessed this information.

FlightStats.com will still show you availability for paid tickets, by fare class, for any given United flight. But the neat thing about what United had been offering on its website is that United.com would also show you special award and upgrade classes.

You could see how many award seats were available, that information is easily replicable with an award search. But it would also show you how many seats were available to confirm an upgrade. That’s incredibly useful to find flights where confirmable upgrade seats are available, you book those flights and then confirm your upgrade (with upgrade instruments or miles). And it also lets you track flights you’ve already purchased in order to make a decision about whether to wait it out for a complimentary upgrade or plunk down a confirmed upgrade instrument.

It was indispensable information for a regular, savvy United customer.

Wandering Aramean says the reason the information was pulled is because of “discrepancies in displayed data” — that the website would show availability that wasn’t really there, and that it was too hard to just fix the problem.

United pinned the blame on customers who didn’t understand what they were looking at, and on screen scraping (it’s unclear which screen scrapers they were referring to, the KVS Tool certainly was accessing the United website and then rendering the data in a customized format, I had always been under the impression that Expert Flyer was getting its information directly from the airline but it’s possible that was not the case).

United says they’re working on a (less functional) replacement:

But, instead of simply exposing fare class inventory (which is quite confusing to most customers), we are working on better ways to share this more meaningful information.

For an airline with call center issues, forcing customers to call and hope for a decent agent who will burn time hunting and pecking for confirmable upgrade space, this hardly seems like pulling this self-serve tool is a good solution.

For an airline that’s alienating its best customers every day by removing benefits and experiencing severe reliability problems (at the bottom of the pack for on-time departures, inability to actually ticket purchased award reservations on partners at times) making customer-unfriendly moves hardly makes any sense.

And ultimately, taking information away from customers is not a long-run winning strategy. Keeping customers in the dark about information crucial to their travels, in a highly competitive industry, is just a bad business move.

If there were concerns that stem from offering the data the way they had been (and the data had been available on the United website in one form or another for years), then the better approach would have been to develop the replacement system before decommissioning the current one.

Sadly, expert mode was disabled on the United website overnight. May she rest in peace, in the same electronic graveyard as my beloved ‘United Connection’ disk-based software for making bookings.

Update: Of course you can still search United.com for flights with upgrade space by using the United website’s advanced search and clicking ‘MileagePlus Upgrade Award’ … and if you want to figure out how many seats are available, just vary the number of passengers you are searching for. The KVS Tool has already adapted itself to this new method.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary-Spot-on analysis and comments. But I don’t understand why you and the other sponsors of SMD4 chose UA as your charter carrier for that event, given all of the elite-unfriendly actions that company’s management has taken since the beginning of the year. By doing business with them for such a high-profile event you appear to be validating their actions.

  2. You could always come over to Delta. Our computers work perfect every time, errr, most of the time, errr, hey… we have computers that your grandad had 😉

  3. United Rising?

    Or perhaps its just the ex Continental folks ruining as much as they can while they can with both United and Mileage Plus
    I’m sure they view everything as enhancements with greater transparency
    Happy to wave to the folks in Chicago from my One World carriers and :):):)

  4. @JetAway – Who else would they pick for the domestic portion? US? They’re trying to merge with AA and join oneworld.

  5. @Brian L.-Sure, why not US? They’re still *A and will be so for quite awhile even if the merger takes place. And the US management team is likely to be in the driver’s seat if the merger occurs so it would be a good time to make connections for the OWMD. Maybe the organizers did approach UA and were rebuffed—in any event water/bridge.

  6. I hope you’ll forgive my admitted cynicism for a moment, but — as much as I think this is indeed a huge bummer for many of us — this won’t matter one iota to United’s bottom line. At least for those of us travel geeks in the U.S., who are we gonna defect to for our primary international-traveling airline here? Delta? US Airways? HA!!!!!

    And for the masses… well, as we’ve seen again and again, prices are pretty much everything. Even the majority of my smart, educated (but not travel-geek) friends have zero brand consciousness/preferences; when a flight to Europe with airline [x] is $50 cheaper than the flight to the same place with airline [y]? Airline [x] it is!

  7. Gary or anyone, is there any way to search for upgrade space for elite Y/B/M upgrades (I think this is “P” class?). I tried for a long time today, and the info seems totally unavailable now without calling. Does anyone have a way to get this info without calling?

  8. @thesilb As long as you can price out rev F tix on a given flight, you have elite-up space (JN) available.

  9. Just another example of united FAIL IMHO. Being now a 1.5MM *G for life with UA, they haven’t really gotten much if any of the $$ this year for transcons and transatl. The domestic dollars have gone to VirginaA, which are cheaper and more predictable for seats and upgrades. The only UA I have done was a nice 50K SFO-JFK on PS in Business which was miles well spent at the time. It’s really sad actually, I thought I would grow old with UA but I figure I’ll just bounce from carrier to carrier now based on router, $$ and features.

  10. I’m annoyed as well. With respect to this website, I’m quite impressed that a google search of “united view upgrade inventory” generates this article as the very top search item, especially given this article is only 2 days old.

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