Continental “enhances” their elite upgrade policies. Again.

Continental is rather well know for announcing “enhancements” to their OnePass program that are nothing of the sort.  This most recent change that they announced doesn’t quite hit that level but it certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions out there with respect to just how they are able to manage their upgrade inventory and the yields that they are seeing on ticket sales.  Sadly for them the answer doesn’t seem good for either of those categories.  And sadly for the very frequent flyers in the OnePass program this has translated into what I see as a downgrade for the vast majority of the customers, in the guise of an “enhancement” to the system.

This most recent change follow on a change made in January.  Back then Continental expanded their “instant upgrade” program to cover not only the Y fares (the most expensive coach fares) but also the B fares (the second most expensive bucket).  These upgrades were available as long as there was a seat in the forward cabin available for sale so access to them was not too difficult except for very close to the date of departure on a couple specific routes (namely EWR-SFO and EWR-LAX).  And since the B fares were most commonly the lowest refundable fares available many customers were suddenly getting first class seats for buying their refundable fares where they previously were in coach on those same fares, at least until the other upgrade routines kicked in closer to the date of travel. 

So this program reduced the amount of F seats Continental had available to sell and that was a problem.  Clearly the solution is to scale back the free instant upgrades on the B fares – an easy enough thing to do – but Continental also doesn’t want to annoy any customers at this point since they are not really making all that money anyways and losing customers would make things even worse.  So how to proceed?  They’ve increased the availability of instant upgrades for their top-tier elites while reducing them for all elites.  That’s right.  They’ve both increased and decreased the availability of instant upgrade seats at the same time, even for the same customers in some cases.

Instant upgrades are now available for Platinum elites (top tier) who purchase M fares (third highest fare bucket), in addition to the Y and B fares.  That is a net increase.  But for all elites the upgrades for B and M fares now come from a much more limited fare bucket.  So instead of being available as long as any revenue seat in the front cabin is for sale the instant upgrades now track on one of the reward inventory buckets.  It is hard to know just how much this new limitation will actually limit access to seats up front but on its face it seems to be a net negative across the board for folks who are buying the cheapest refundable fare and ho have previously been upgraded immediately at that point.

It is almost certainly better for Continental as they can limit access to the instant upgrade bucket on the routes where they really want to be selling more first class seats, such as the transcon routes noted above.  And in many cases those transcons feed into trans-Atlantic routes where the premiums paid to sit up front are even higher except that when there are no front cabin seats available to sell Continental loses that business to competitors. 

But is it really better for the customer?  At first blush the answer seems to be a bit mixed.  Sure, another fare bucket that gets the instant upgrades is a great thing, but the overall reduction of instant upgrade inventory seems to work against that benefit, especially for the Silver and Gold elites who don’t even get the extra upgrades on the M fares.

There is also the issue of their implementation.  The change was made in their systems on Friday, the same day that it was announced.  Except that instead of only implementing it for the domestic routes where the instant upgrades are typically available they managed to make instant upgrades an option for ALL flights booked in the M bucket, even the longest of the long-haul flights.  Want to fly to Hong Kong up front?  The M fares are in the $1,500-2,000 range depending on where you are starting from and they indicate that there are instant upgrades available.  Of course, these flights are not actually eligible for such upgrades but Continental made a similar mistake when they made the change for B fare upgrades back in January and ended up honoring at least some of those upgrades for free so this has the potential to cost them a bit of money.  It is particularly strange that they managed to make the same mistake twice in a row; you’d think that they would learn from prior mistakes.  Apparently they didn’t.  At least they’ve finally recognized that they did make an error and fixed the website.  Now to clean up the mess…

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.