United cuts off points aggregation sites


United Airlines has joined the ranks of companies trying to limit their customers ability to track loyalty program data through third party aggregation sites. They are the 4th major carrier in the USA to pursue such a policy, joining Southwest, Delta and American Airlines in blocking such access. While United has not yet issued a public statement TripIt, the travel plans and points aggregation site has sent a notice to their members indicating that access to the data will be cut off as of 11 December 2012.

Dear TripIt Pro member,
We are writing because our records show that you are tracking your United MileagePlus account with TripIt Pro’s point-tracker feature.

United no longer allows third-party services to access MileagePlus accounts. Starting tomorrow, TripIt Pro can no longer track your United MileagePlus miles, but we’ll continue to store your account number for you.

Why is this happening?
There are differing opinions in the travel industry about whether your reward-program accounts should be accessible to third parties to whom you’ve given permission. Some travel providers have decided not to allow this access.

A member of the United Public Relations group responded to my request for more information with the following:

United issued cease and desist letters to certain mileage management companies that market to MileagePlus members. We encourage each of these organizations seeking to extract data from united.com on behalf of our customers to enter into a formal agreement with United in order to ensure compliance with the Terms, Conditions, and Legal Notices contained on united.com. United is happy to explore these formal partnerships. In fact, we already have a relationship with one such organization – UsingMiles.

For the airlines it is partly a matter of controlling the data and the customer interaction. It is also a matter of controlling the access to their systems. They have no motivation to build an interface that these companies can integrate with if the companies aren’t licensing the data and the other option is paying for the increased loads on their systems from the repeated queries. Neither seems particularly enticing for the airlines, though that doesn’t necessarily justify cutting off the access. American Airlines eventually came out and admitted that they would reconsider if the websites agreed to a licensing deal for the data but they aren’t interested in providing it for free.

This isn’t the first time United has taken such actions in the face of 3rd party harvesting sites using their data. Remember when "expert mode" went away? Data scraping was one of the justifications used then, too. That said, the option is back and all the same sites/tools which were scraping the data are still doing so; apparently it didn’t matter all that much.

At the end of the day, the airlines may be within their rights to cut access to these tools. Their website terms of service are quite broad and seem to cover the actions of TripIt and other, similar companies:

This Web site is for the User’s personal, noncommercial use only. User agrees not to modify, copy, alter, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information, software, products or services obtained from this Web site without United Airlines’ prior written permission. User agrees not to use any robot, spider, other automatic device, or manual process to monitor or copy this Web site or the content contained therein or for any other unauthorized purpose without United Airlines’ prior written permission.

But just because they can do something doesn’t mean they should. There are many situations where the airlines behave in a manner which may have a cost associated with it based on the ability to attract and retain customers. That’s what marketing is all about, after all. And this is a pretty terrible marketing move.

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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, LinkedIn and .

9 Comments

  1. I am very curious as to the legal basis the airlines have for this. The language on the website you quote is irrelevant. By way of extreme comparison, the terms & conditions could also say “We reserve the right to kill anyone who does not comply with the rules of our program” but clearly that would not be legal. So just because it’s written down does not mean it is legally enforcable. And indeed it does not even mean they think it is – their lawyers may also find it ambiguous but choose to leave it their anyway. They know that the chance of anyone seriously challenging them is so slim. It would be great to see a large, well capitalized entity challenge them on this. Just not sure anything exists. I mean the reality is the world’s number one website is one gigantic web-scraping tool and I doubt United or AA or Delta or WN would feel so damn cocky sending them a C&D. Maybe one of these services needs to sell out to a Google and then fight the fight on level terms

  2. From the UA T&C: “User agrees not to use any robot, spider, other automatic device, or manual process to monitor or copy this Web site or the content contained therein or for any other unauthorized purpose without United Airlines’ prior written permission.”

    So basically, I not only prohibited from using my own scraper to track my balance, but I can’t even hire a personal assistant (manual process) to log into united.com on my behalf and email me the latest account information.

  3. @MilesAbound — TripIt isn’t exactly a small company. They are owned by Concur, a $3B (marketcap) publicly traded company that certainly could afford a lawyer or two.

  4. I agree it’s a customer-unfriendly move. Though with more airlines piling on now, though, seems like it’s a matter of time before most of the aggregator sites become useless and whither away. The airlines are always quick to join one another in taking things away.

    AA was especially irritating because at first they continued to insist that blocking Award Wallet was for “security” purposes. Even Randy Peterson defended AA on that basis. Then as Seth mentions, AA eventually admitted they would be OK if they got paid for access.

  5. @Oliver yes good point I realized that after posting. So actually I am glad to see this is TripIt. While they appear to be complying, I’d be very interested to see if they decide to challenge. At the very least, it would be interesting to discuss this with a lawyer who knew this space.

  6. yup…anything to inconvenience a customer…. they are quickly approaching Air Canada’s moto… If you’re not unhappy we’re not happy.

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