United restricts access to United Clubs

After facing a one-third reduction in the number of airport club locations available to members of United Airlines’ United Club, members are now facing additional restrictions on how they can use their club memberships.

In an Aug. 18 email, United (NYSE:UAL) said it would require that members produce a same-day boarding pass before being granted club access, effective immediately. The airline said the change would “[M]aintain and further improve the United Club experience.”

Because the change will mean fewer people in any given club at any given moment, I can accept that the change will improve the experience for those flying United that day. But for others, many of whom have paid upwards of $500 for an annual pass but are flying on a different carrier, it will have quite the opposite effect.

One of the reasons one buys a membership in a specific airline’s club, whether United or any other airline, is familiarity. I like using the time before my flight in familiar surroundings so, when flying out of my home airport, I would head to the United Club to grab a snack, check my email, and get a bit of work done. If I was flying a different carrier than United, it simply meant allowing a little more time to get to a different terminal when departure time neared.

Because all United Clubs have certain similarities in terms of their food, drink and amenities, that familiarity was also a draw for my return trip.

With its new restrictions, United Club members are no longer able to do that. They will only get to use the club they paid handsomely to join – whether using dollars or accrued miles – on days when they are flying United and not another carrier.

This most recent change further reduces the actual value received for the cost of a membership, just as did last year’s reduction in the number of available club locations. United Club members lost reciprocal access to 19 US Airways clubs in March 2014 as part of the American Airlines (NYSE:AAL)/US Airways merger. At that time, United stated it would not be making any refunds or reductions in annual dues to compensate for the reduced access.

That unapologetic attitude lead to my decision not to renew my membership and irritated other United Club members as well, as you can read in the comments to my post on the topic. I have no doubt that this latest move will alienate more members. If you are among that number, perhaps a more flexible club membership, such as those offered by PriorityPass, would better meet your travel needs. In any case, it is worth investigating.

Finally, United would do well to heed the words of its own CEO. During the company’s 3Q13 earnings call on Nov. 13, 2013, Jeff Smisek said, "The only way you can differentiate yourselves is through excellent customer service."

This isn’t it.

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