The Real Reason United Removed Online Upgrade Inventory

Yesterday, I posited three theories seeking to explain why United removed the display of upgrade inventory from I have a fourth one--and my experience today demonstrates why it is most likely the correct one. The reason is not a discrepancy in space displayed versus space available. Nor is it to sell more upgrades or to crack down on screen-scrapers. No, the primary reason is rather simple--the system is broken in a different way and shielding this problem is a much easier fix than actually getting to the root of it.

When you are waitlisted for an upgrade using miles or an upgrade instrument, you are supposed to clear immediately when "R" space becomes available. In reality, though, this happens much less frequently than it should. Take my trip tomorrow, for example...

Just another trip on United from Los Angeles back to Philadelphia, this time via San Francisco. Cloud Commuting graciously sponsored an upgrade on this itinerary (clearing a SFO-PHL afternoon flight with 12 first class seats is just about impossible any other way) but the confirmed upgrade space (R-Class) was not available so the upgrade remained in a waitlisted status.

Fast-forward to 24-hours before departure, when automatically checked me in and sent me this note along with my boarding passes--


Two problems. First, the Los Angeles-San Francisco flight had already cleared--it was the San Francsico-Philadelphia flight I was waiting on. Second, there was R-space available on the SFO-PHL flight! A quick search on revealed it just moments after the e-mail above arrived.


Now United tends to release R space right at the 24hr mark, so it is possible that my online check-in missed the upgrade by a few nanoseconds, but what happened is another clear indication that the upgrade system is broken and nicely demonstrates why United would choose to hide R-space: why let me know that the system is broken when there is no easy fix for it?

Well, a quick called to United got me confirmed into first class on the flight, but it still required a phone call that should not have been necessary. And who knows? Maybe I jumped in front of a couple Global Service flyers trying to upgrade on the flight by calling--but the United guidelines are quite clear--upgrade clearance is supposed to be instantaneous if you apply for an upgrade using miles or a confirmed instrument and there is R space available.

Yet another example of why upgrades are becoming an increasingly burdensome battle on United. I know how to play the game and you therefore will not see me in coach class on a flight more than an hour long, but it should not be this difficult. And for the majority who do not know the ins and outs of United's archaic upgrade system--well, they are just getting hosed.


UA-NYC September 10, 2012 at 06:54 am

I've had to do this all the time since 3/3 - amazing coincidence how upgrade waitslists expire at T-24, yet that's right when R space also opens up! And instead of clearing you, that's when the TOD games start.

Dan September 10, 2012 at 10:11 am

So you've managed to hit all of my high points between this post and the last. 100% agreed that if the problem was scraping or revenue buckets, there are much better solutions available to UA -- this nuclear option is clearly (IMHO) designed to turn the upgrade system into a true black box. (Even though it is not working correctly as you point out).

The one potentially new item I have to add to the discussion is that I think this demonstrates a major mistake of UA when they re-did their fare classes / ff program ahead of the merger in making instrument/miles+$ supported upgrades clear into the same buckets as complimentary upgrades. If UA did as AA has done and had one bucket for supported confirmed upgrades and another for complimentary upgrades, they could have taken a much more nuanced approach here. I think it's perfectly reasonable for a consumer to make inquiries such as 'can my confirmable upgrade confirm at booking?' (and remember, UA is the one who has given them the ability to do this, be it CR1, SWU, Miles, etc), and removing that ability to see this when it was present before is quite frustrating. Removing the ability to see CPU inventory would be unfortunate considering the process problems they've had, but not nearly as bad as removing the ability to see confirmable inventory.

Damian September 10, 2012 at 02:14 pm

5 times this has happened to me, and countless to friends who I help get upgrades. If you are wait-listed you need to check all the time for space, not even within the 24 hours. I had a booking were "R" space opened up a week after I was wait-listed, called and said I see "R" space, the agent said, "hummm, so do it. You are cleared" UA is falling apart.

Johnb300m September 10, 2012 at 04:36 pm

Ha, Matt, I have to commend your perseverance with this severely broken company. How can you still in good conscience still give them your money? I know you have a lot of friends working there.....but after 7 years of great flights, I had to sadly walk AAway. The stress was just too much. Best of luck.

azm September 11, 2012 at 12:21 am

Matt, thanks for this helpful update for those of us who have a higher chance of getting hosed. Is there a way to search specifically for R inventory on the United website, now that the fare buckets are no longer available?

tale September 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm

You can still use the check upgrade availability to see if your flight has R available. What's the story with ExpertFlyer? will they still have access to this information?

Chris September 24, 2012 at 05:28 pm

Based on the disclaimer required to re-enable Expert Mode, I do believe you're right. It sounds like they wanted to hide the fact that their system is quite broken. Oy vey.


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