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Airline Loyalty and Changed Priorities (Or, So Long United)

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There’s a lot of flux in the airline industry at the moment.  United recently announced a restructuring of its elite program, with minimum spending being added as a requirement to achieve different elite status tiers (in addition to miles flown).  And they even followed up that announcement with an increase in change fees on award tickets.  Ouch.

As a San Francisco Bay Area based flyer, United is the largest airline in my area.  Naturally, my family and friends are often held a bit hostage to United on a lot of routes.  Over the years, we’ve certainly liked (and used) our United miles and have enjoyed a few perks along the way.

However, I’m seeing a lot of friends now protesting that there are simply fewer and fewer reasons to be loyal to United.  Fees are increasing and perks are decreasing.  Many are seeking out alternatives when they are available.  And with three airports in the area and most major and even minor airlines offering some service to some of these airports, the alternatives are plenty.

United has definitely been the airline I’ve flown most since my daughter was born, but my loyalty has waned quite a bit too.  This is the first year in awhile that neither my husband nor I have Silver status on United.  That is, in part, due to the fact that neither of us had a lot of major business travel last year.  But it is also due to the fact that we simply quit being loyal to United on our personal travel.  The in-flight experience simply isn’t as good on a lot of routes, and we were certainly never given any real perks for our low-level status, since so many higher level elites dominate the Bay Area.  We already have a United credit card that enables us to get free bags, which is all that our Silver status was doing for us anyway.

The result?  We’ve been quite happy trying out other airlines and are happy to bid United loyalty a fond farewell.  So, which airlines are we choosing and enjoying these days?  For those of you who are Bay Area flyers looking to make a change, here is my personal hierarchy at the moment:

1) Virgin America

Pros: Newer planes, new terminal at SFO, friendly flight attendants, good in-flight entertainment, decent food options, changing tables for your infants on all planes

Cons: Only flies out of SFO (not OAK, and only recently SJC)

Dora episodes on demand? Hurray for Virgin America!

Dora episodes on demand? Hurray for Virgin America!

2) Southwest

Pros: Frequent service to most West Coast markets, reasonable fares, free checked bags, no change fees, upbeat flight attendants, big presence at all three Bay Area airports, reasonably-priced WiFi

Cons: Boarding cattle calls, lack of meals

3) Alaska

Pros: Reasonable fares (including lots of Hawaii options), cheaper checked bag and other fees, upbeat flight attendants, increasing service out of OAK

Cons: Minimal SFO service (mostly through airline partners), older planes

Alaska's mai tai, passion orange guava juice, and aloha snack mix!

Alaska’s mai tai, passion orange guava juice, and aloha snack mix!

4) JetBlue

Pros: Free first checked bag, good in-flight entertainment, cool unlimited snacks (Terra Blues!), changing tables for your infants on all planes

Cons: Seriously diminished capacity out of OAK in recent years, planes starting to show their age.

JetBlue's In Flight Entertainment

JetBlue’s In Flight Entertainment

5) United

Pros: The most Bay Area service to most destinations, newer planes on some routes, business-travel friendly schedules, fairly good mileage redemption options (for now)

Cons: Lack of WiFi, seriously old planes on some routes, more fees, decreased elite benefits, no OAK service

6) Delta

Pros: Newer planes on some routes (ATL), many flight attendants with a lot of Southern charm, consistent WiFi service

Cons: Older and cramped planes on other routes (MSP/SLC), lack of saver award ticket availability, low frequency to many destinations, ATL mega-hub is misplaced for making certain geographic connections from the West Coast, Terminal 1 presence in SFO

7) American

Pros: New terminal at SFO, better mid-continent connections to a lot of southern destinations through DFW  for SF based flyers

Cons: Many old planes, seat cramping only going to get worsedifficulty in securing seats together with your child, no OAK service

8) US Airways

Pros: Currently a Star Alliance partner with United (soon to change once American merger is complete); American merger will make any orphan US Airways miles usable

Cons: Really ancient and cramped planes serving SFO, serves SFO out of similarly ancient Terminal 1, iffy flight attendant service, minimal OAK service (PHX only).

To be sure, one’s experience can be radically different based upon where you are located.  For example, I know many an ATL-based flyer who swears forever Delta allegiance, but the Delta options from the West Coast just aren’t that great.  And many a CLT based flyer is fairly happy even with US Airways.  So, your miles may vary.

It is worth noting that I will still choose to fly any and all of these airlines if the pricing or schedule is right.  I would simply happily pay a bit more for some airlines over others, and I’d even choose flight times that were not optimal to get to fly the carrier of my choice in many instances.

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