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A Modest Theory of Why Upgrades Became More Difficult to Obtain After the Merger

A Modest Theory of Why Upgrades Became More Difficult to Obtain After the Merger

Old May 14, 13, 8:28 am
  #1  
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A Modest Theory of Why Upgrades Became More Difficult to Obtain After the Merger

I haven't seen this posted before; if it has and I missed it, my apologies.

Here goes: we all know upgrades have become harder to get since the UA/CO merger. There are a lot of theories here; blaming this lack of upgrades on TODs is a popular one. However, while we can blame the new United for some of these issues, I think one possible reason upgrades became harder to obtain is that, as a result of the merger, fewer people are getting more upgrades.

Let me explain.

Assume there are two airlines, A and B. A flies CITY-ORD, B flies CITY-IAH.

Each airline has 1 flight a week; 4 flights a month. Each airplane has 2 first class seats.

4 passengers are part of A's frequent flier program: Albert, Betty, Charlie, and Daisy.

Albert flies CITY-ORD 4 times a month, Betty flies 3 times a month, Charlie once a month, and Daisy once a year.

Whenever Albert flies (which is every flight), he's always upgraded. Betty is also upgraded whenever she flies. Charlie is occasionally upgraded (when he flies and Betty doesn't fly). Daisy is almost never upgraded.

4 passengers are part of B's frequent flier program: Jeff, Kara, Luke, and Michelle.

Again, Jeff files CITY-IAH 4 times a month, Kara flies 3 times a month, Luke once a month, and Michelle once a year. They get upgraded in the same way as the 4 passengers of airline A.

Now, let's assume imagine that Albert and Jeff are management consultants and they fly a lot. Albert, in addition to CITY-ORD 4x a month, also files CITY-IAH 2x a month. Jeff, in addition to CITY-IAH 4x a month, also flies CITY-ORD 2x a month. If Albert signed up for B's frequent flier program, he would be ranked behind Jeff and Kara and would only get upgraded occasionally, if both J and K are not on the flight. Same for Jeff and A's freq. flier program.

Next, airlines A and B merge and combine their frequent flier program. Assume CITY-ORD is 1 mile further than CITY-IAH. The new freq. flier rank looks like this:

Albert, Jeff, Betty, Kara, Charlie, Luke, Daisy, Michelle.

Now, Albert and Jeff both get upgraded every time they fly, both CITY-ORD and CITY-IAH.

However, where as Betty would always get upgraded on CITY-ORD and Kara on CITY-IAH, now Betty and Kara would only be upgraded if both Albert and Jeff are not on their flights. Remember that Jeff is on half the CITY-ORD flights and Albert on half the CITY-IAH flights. Thus, Betty and Kara now have 50% or less chance of getting upgrades.

Furthermore, where Charlie and Luke would get occasional upgrades before, when Betty and Kara aren't flying, Charlie and Luke will almost never get upgrades now, since they'll need Albert, Jeff, and Betty/Kara to not fly when they're flying.

As you can see in the above example, the total number of upgrade seats have not changed. However, due to the combined freq. flier program after the merger, the top fliers are getting more of the upgrades to the detriment of mid-tier fliers, which is exactly what we've seen.

Again, I don't think this explains all the issues before the lack of upgrades, or even most of them. But I think this is responsible for at least some of the lack of upgrades that we golds and silvers have noticed since 3/3.

I look forward to your thoughts!
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Old May 14, 13, 8:35 am
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This is tongue in cheek, so take it in the light hearted way it is intended. Bigger route network allows MRs/segment runners more legs that they wouldn't have had before, so instead of using the network for an efficient routing, it allows a few to suck up more upgrades on flights they never would have been on in the past. Yesterday, I worked an ORD-CLE flight and got a call from our connection planner that we were going to be holding a few min for a few connections coming in on a IAH-ORD flight (it made up time and the people were directed quickly to us, so we didn't end up delaying the flight) and my 1st thought was "Aren't there plenty of IAH-CLE non-stop flight options without having to fly thru ORD?!?!"
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Old May 14, 13, 8:55 am
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Originally Posted by fastair View Post
Yesterday, I worked an ORD-CLE flight and got a call from our connection planner that we were going to be holding a few min for a few connections coming in on a IAH-ORD flight (it made up time and the people were directed quickly to us, so we didn't end up delaying the flight) and my 1st thought was "Aren't there plenty of IAH-CLE non-stop flight options without having to fly thru ORD?!?!"
Maybe .bomb offered the connecting flights cheaper than the nonstops? I know that's not as common today as it was under PMUA, but I do have it happen (and hate it when it's a routing which gives no or marginal extra miles, e.g. SFO-DEN-IAD instead of SFO-IAD, which is a frequent choice .bomb offers me, often at a significant discount over the nonstop).
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Old May 14, 13, 8:56 am
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"Aren't there plenty of IAH-CLE non-stop flight options without having to fly thru ORD?!?!"
ACtually, they eviscerated the IAH-CLE schedule. I'm assuming that a lot of that traffic was connections, and many of those were better served via ORD, so they did the swap.
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Old May 14, 13, 8:58 am
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Originally Posted by fastair View Post
This is tongue in cheek, so take it in the light hearted way it is intended. Bigger route network allows MRs/segment runners more legs that they wouldn't have had before, so instead of using the network for an efficient routing, it allows a few to suck up more upgrades on flights they never would have been on in the past. Yesterday, I worked an ORD-CLE flight and got a call from our connection planner that we were going to be holding a few min for a few connections coming in on a IAH-ORD flight (it made up time and the people were directed quickly to us, so we didn't end up delaying the flight) and my 1st thought was "Aren't there plenty of IAH-CLE non-stop flight options without having to fly thru ORD?!?!"
I totally appreciate that this is tongue-in-cheek. But... I can't help responding in a partially serious way -- not to the MR part (which I agree with in the same tongue-in-cheek way; I've certainly enjoyed that aspect of the new route network!), but to the IAH-CLE bit.

I've noticed that direct hub-to-hub flights are often really expensive. CO always priced IAH-EWR this way, but I'm finding that in a lot of cases, the lower fare classes simply aren't published on hub-to-hub routings. I can get an L fare on IAH-CLE-SYR, or on IAH-ORD-CLE, but if I want the direct IAH-CLE it's a Q or M fare (for example).

Seems to be a classic example of price discrimination (biz travelers will pay extra for direct flights), but it does put price-conscious flyers in weird routings.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:02 am
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As a top tier flyer on refundable fares, I still sit in Y pretty often.

I will say my Business upgrades have done pretty well on INTL flights.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:07 am
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Originally Posted by sincx View Post
I haven't seen this posted before; if it has and I missed it, my apologies.

Here goes: we all know upgrades have become harder to get since the UA/CO merger. There are a lot of theories here; blaming this lack of upgrades on TODs is a popular one. However, while we can blame the new United for some of these issues, I think one possible reason upgrades became harder to obtain is that, as a result of the merger, fewer people are getting more upgrades.

Let me explain.

Assume there are two airlines, A and B. A flies CITY-ORD, B flies CITY-IAH.

Each airline has 1 flight a week; 4 flights a month. Each airplane has 2 first class seats.

4 passengers are part of A's frequent flier program: Albert, Betty, Charlie, and Daisy.

Albert flies CITY-ORD 4 times a month, Betty flies 3 times a month, Charlie once a month, and Daisy once a year.

Whenever Albert flies (which is every flight), he's always upgraded. Betty is also upgraded whenever she flies. Charlie is occasionally upgraded (when he flies and Betty doesn't fly). Daisy is almost never upgraded.

4 passengers are part of B's frequent flier program: Jeff, Kara, Luke, and Michelle.

Again, Jeff files CITY-IAH 4 times a month, Kara flies 3 times a month, Luke once a month, and Michelle once a year. They get upgraded in the same way as the 4 passengers of airline A.

Now, let's assume imagine that Albert and Jeff are management consultants and they fly a lot. Albert, in addition to CITY-ORD 4x a month, also files CITY-IAH 2x a month. Jeff, in addition to CITY-IAH 4x a month, also flies CITY-ORD 2x a month. If Albert signed up for B's frequent flier program, he would be ranked behind Jeff and Kara and would only get upgraded occasionally, if both J and K are not on the flight. Same for Jeff and A's freq. flier program.

Next, airlines A and B merge and combine their frequent flier program. Assume CITY-ORD is 1 mile further than CITY-IAH. The new freq. flier rank looks like this:

Albert, Jeff, Betty, Kara, Charlie, Luke, Daisy, Michelle.

Now, Albert and Jeff both get upgraded every time they fly, both CITY-ORD and CITY-IAH.

However, where as Betty would always get upgraded on CITY-ORD and Kara on CITY-IAH, now Betty and Kara would only be upgraded if both Albert and Jeff are not on their flights. Remember that Jeff is on half the CITY-ORD flights and Albert on half the CITY-IAH flights. Thus, Betty and Kara now have 50% or less chance of getting upgrades.

Furthermore, where Charlie and Luke would get occasional upgrades before, when Betty and Kara aren't flying, Charlie and Luke will almost never get upgrades now, since they'll need Albert, Jeff, and Betty/Kara to not fly when they're flying.

As you can see in the above example, the total number of upgrade seats have not changed. However, due to the combined freq. flier program after the merger, the top fliers are getting more of the upgrades to the detriment of mid-tier fliers, which is exactly what we've seen.

Again, I don't think this explains all the issues before the lack of upgrades, or even most of them. But I think this is responsible for at least some of the lack of upgrades that we golds and silvers have noticed since 3/3.

I look forward to your thoughts!
I'm glad you weren't my math teacher!!!
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Old May 14, 13, 9:21 am
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Originally Posted by 5khours View Post
I'm glad you weren't my math teacher!!!
Poor math teachers, they can't win -- problems about trains approaching each other at different speeds draw criticism for not being real-world enough, but then real-world problems are considered too complicated.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:30 am
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Upgrades are fewer because of HODs, TODs, mileage redemption, SHARES failures, and internal shenanigans.

It does not need a new theory. It is simple.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:31 am
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Originally Posted by sincx View Post

I look forward to your thoughts!
I suspect the fundamental intuition your illustration provides is correct. With a larger network and more flights, each flyer is more able to stay within the United network of flights than before (without less desirable routings), which results in elite members taking a higher percentage of flights on United, and obtaining the benefits of their status.

That said, I think it's going to be very difficult (without inside information) to disentangle the effects of an expanded network from other efforts to enhance revenue and yield factors.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:35 am
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Originally Posted by fastair View Post
This is tongue in cheek, so take it in the light hearted way it is intended. Bigger route network allows MRs/segment runners more legs that they wouldn't have had before, so instead of using the network for an efficient routing, it allows a few to suck up more upgrades on flights they never would have been on in the past. Yesterday, I worked an ORD-CLE flight and got a call from our connection planner that we were going to be holding a few min for a few connections coming in on a IAH-ORD flight (it made up time and the people were directed quickly to us, so we didn't end up delaying the flight) and my 1st thought was "Aren't there plenty of IAH-CLE non-stop flight options without having to fly thru ORD?!?!"
As noted, I'm sure the price is a lot cheaper. I see multiple RJs on that route too - maybe they weren't willing to take that ride.

MRs are a needle in a very big haystack, let's not put the blame on them.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:38 am
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Originally Posted by entropy View Post
ACtually, they eviscerated the IAH-CLE schedule. I'm assuming that a lot of that traffic was connections, and many of those were better served via ORD, so they did the swap.
And there are RJs on this route now, too.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:45 am
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Originally Posted by mitchmu View Post
Upgrades are fewer because of HODs, TODs, mileage redemption, SHARES failures, and internal shenanigans.

It does not need a new theory. It is simple.
I think that domestic upgrades are harder because of two main factors: (a) less capacity (including fewer F seats) and (b) SHARES selling upgrades before offering them for free with CPUs. With (b), as long as the up-pricing is determined reasonably, taking into account the relative costs of the coach and cheapest F fares, I can live with it. (I've hated the CPU idea from the start - much prefer the E500 and CR-1 approach!)

International upgrades seem to be relatively easy to get, for a 1K at least, as long as one is willing to pay a bit more than the minimum coach fare.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:50 am
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I see the term MR used sometimes to describe someone who chooses to fly in less than the most direct route. I really don't think this a good use of the term. To me a MR is trip with no purpose other than to accumulate miles for a FFP. I've read enough on FT to know that this kind of MR exists, even if it is not very common.

It is very common, however, to take a less than direct route to desired destination. Some of this behavior is caused by FFP incentives, but lots of it is related to the pricing and schedules the airlines use. I often find myself going out of my way because it's cheaper or avoiding a direct flight because it is on equipment that I refuse to fly long distances. That does not make me a mileage runner.
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Old May 14, 13, 9:58 am
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I've proposed something similar in other threads, and have gotten a similar range of responses.

People have been complaining about long upgrade lists with lots of people above them. People can moan on all they want about TOD's, etc., but the only way to explain long upgrade lists is more elites.
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