The end of 5-stop transcons on United

United Airlines used to be my favorite airline for booking mileage runs. Why? Because of their routing rules. Their route and hub structure, combined with a desire to permit flexibility to customers, allowed for from truly creative routes on many, many, many flights. Even hub-to-hub travel could have connections mixed in if desired. Those days have apparently come to an end.

Take a not so recent trip of mine from Tampa, FL to Ontario, CA. The most direct routing available was 2,325 miles flown and a single connection. My booking, with four connections along the way, was 3,873 miles of travel. If you count the minimum miles credited on the shorter segments the number is even higher. Assuming one is willing to spend the time flying the ability to earn nearly double the total miles for the same trip was quite real.

Fullscreen capture 692010 93554 AMOr another recent trip I took, from Minneapolis, MN to Spokane, WA. Why take the shorter, direct routing when so many more miles can be had by routing via New Orleans, LA (I went via Houston on the return)?

Fullscreen capture 692010 94109 AM

Indeed, these wacky and very lucrative routings appear to be just a historical footnote now as United has severely changed their routing rules on most fares. In many cases the rules are now only permitting one or two connections rather than four en route. Indeed, a quick look at the above two trips suggests that the MSP-GEG routing is still pretty loose while TPA-ONT has tightened up quite a bit. Lucky over at One Mile At A Time notes that his favorite route, TPA-SEA, is now only permitting single connections.

Indeed, the airlines are making it just a bit harder for folks to truly take advantage of their loyalty reward programs. There are still holes and there likely always will be, but this sort of change is not a good sign for folks like me who leverage the very cheap fares to collect miles for relatively expensive reward redemptions.

This sort of change is one of those steps that was likely inevitable as the airlines look to return to profitability and to control their costs in ways they can control. There is no reason they should be flying folks double the number of miles nor preventing other passengers from booking those seats for more direct travel at such a low price. The fact that I could take up a first class seat on a transcon route, plus four other flights, for pennies on the dollar relative to what the transcon would sell for simply doesn’t make sense in the context of actually trying to make money operating an airline.

It is also worth noting that this sort of routing change is quite similar to policies that United’s new BFF and soon to be merger partner Continental has had for some time. Continental even has different rules on fares at the same price point at the bottom end of their pricing structure to either permit or prohibit any connections between some city pairs. United tightening the strings on this sort of thing almost certainly reflects a closer cooperation and alignment of policies between the two carriers in advance of their merger closing. The fact that they are blaming all sorts of other policy decisions, like Continental’s canceling their WiFi deployment, on the impending merger, suggests that the two carriers are very much loking to operate as one even before they actually are such.

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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.

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