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I got a great piece of direct mail yesterday. I know! Can you believe I said that – as much as I detest this tired old marketing method?

It was a 5 1/2 X 8 1/2 folded post card with a special cut, glossy card stock with four color printing. This piece was not cheap.

On the front was this tantalizing statement: “Coming your way: an easier and more rewarding upgrade experience” from United Airlines.

Okay, I’ll bite. I opened it up to a simple chart comparing United to American, Delta, Continental, US Airways and Southwest. It was showing how generous United has become with their first class upgrades for elite passengers. Of course Southwest scored a big fat zero on their chart because, um, and maybe United doesn’t know this – but Southwest Airlines doesn’t play the First Class game. As they like to put it “Everyone’s in first class with Southwest.”

United has changed a policy and they’re using a slick marketing campaign to look like they are doing something really cool. I used to have to sign-up for a first class upgrade and have enough coupons or miles in my account, in the event my name was called, to “buy” my way up. When you’re an elite traveler (100k miles a year) you get these coupons all the time. I never ran out.

So what they’re really doing is saving themselves time and money by discontinuing the charade of the coupon and automatically putting all elite travelers on the upgrade list. Sounds lovely, right?

Here’s what’s really going on. United has cut back their number of flights significantly to ensure a packed house. They are usually calling for volunteers to take a later flight because flights are overbooked. Very few people buy first class these days so to accommodate an overbooking, they move elites to the front of the bus. They are in effect, already doing this.

This reminds me of some member reward programs that offer free money orders to elite members. Those with over $50K aggregate balances – you know, the money order users.  We’ll have to do nothing, but look like we’re doing something.

United must have some marketing budget to burn up cuz this direct mail piece is gorgeous. I gotta give them credit – but I don’t expect to be upgraded anytime soon. I dropped down to the dreaded Premier (elite) status in February. 2009 was a slow travel year for me. I am now barely above the rung with the goats and chickens.

I think I’ll enjoy my open seating, all you can eat peanut buffet and cheerful flight attendants on Southwest thank you very much.

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March 2010