21 years ago legendary Continental CEO Gordon Bethune wrote “From Worst to First” about how he turned Continental from the worst US airline into the best US airline. He took flak for calling United “HIV positive” when asked about merging with them and his hand picked successor, Larry Kellner, was forced out when he refused to merge with United. Jeff Smisek took over and merged Continental with United while preserving the worst aspects of both carriers.
Sitting at then United CEO Jeff Smisek’s desk:
Smisek was eventually forced out due the federal government investigating him and due to poor performance and new CEO Oscar Munoz went on an apology tour, promising to make United great again.
Meeting Oscar before United’s final 747 flight:
The honeymoon period didn’t last long after Munoz bungled the Dr. Dao incident.
United hired infamous USAirways bean counter Scott Kirby as their new President after he had a falling out with American. Jeff Smisek and Scott Kirby could write the sequel “From First to Worst,” but nowadays former USAirways CEO Doug Parker has the rightful claim on worst as far as airline operations go. Delta has the worst mileage program, though the other airlines are trying so hard to catch up with them.
The ability to not have to compete for customers was all made possible by the mergers that eliminated Airtran, America West, Continental, Northwest, and USAirways.
The rise and fall of the United Club card benefits mirrors the industry’s.
When the card launched it cost $395/year and had some pretty sweet benefits as can be seen from my April 2012 post on it. But looking back at that post, I’m just amazed about how many of those benefits have been killed!
- It offered 1.5 miles per dollar everywhere, which was very innovative at the time.
- However, in April 2016 Chase launched the no annual fee Freedom Unlimited Card, which also earns 1.5 points per dollar and those points are Hybrid Chase points which can be used for paid travel, cashback, or mileage transfers.
- In May 2017 AMEX struck back with The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express that earns 2 points per dollar everywhere, has no annual fee, and can transfer points into miles.
- Chase responded in May 2018 with a business version of their 1.5 points per dollar no annual fee card, the Chase Ink Unlimited.
- Chase is currently offering 3 points per dollar on a new Freedom Unlimited card signup.
- Earning “hybrid” bank points is far superior to earning miles locked into one carrier that are subject to painful devaluations. You can transfer them on demand when you need them without leaving yourself exposed to devaluations. Or you can redeem them for a myriad of other uses.
- All of these changes mean that the United Club card’s once innovative everyday benefit is not worth much unless you’re outside of the US as the card has no foreign transaction fees, while these other everyday cards do have foreign transaction fees.
- It offered Avis President’s Club elite status.
- This benefit was killed in 2013 for new cardholders. Cardholders now get Hertz President’s Circle status, which is much easier to obtain from other cards.
- It offered a full unrestricted United Club membership.
- At the time this offered United Club access for you and your family even if you weren’t flying. United would issue you a gate pass to get past TSA and access the club, which was very useful.
- In September 2013 United started charging for previously free premium liquors and beers.
- In August 2016 they started requiring that you had a same day boarding pass on any airline to access the club, the gate pass benefit was killed.
- In December 2016 United removed showers from United Clubs and shifted them to their new Polaris lounges that require an international business class ticket. This devalued the usefulness of the clubs when flying coach or even when flying in first class across the country or to Hawaii when it’s nice to freshen up in the lounge before or after a flight.
- Effective 11/1/19 United will only allow you to access the club if you have a same day United or Star Alliance boarding pass. This severely limits the usefulness of the club membership.
- It offered to waive the $75 close-in fee for booking award tickets within 3 weeks.
- Effective 11/15/19 United will eliminate close-in fees on awards. No, that’s not a good thing, it’s actually devastating news as mileage rates will likely skyrocket when tickets are expensive. This takes away a major benefit of this card.
- It offered priority boarding in a group before cardholders from less expensive United cards.
- In January 2019 United changed boarding group 2 to include all United cardholders and Silver elites. There is no longer any priority boarding benefit over less expensive United cards. You do still retain the ability to use priority checkin where available.
- It offered 2 free bags for the cardholder and one companion, even when you didn’t purchase your ticket with the card.
- United now requires that you purchase the ticket on the card in order to get free bags. Other cards offer more miles per dollar spent on airfare and more travel benefits, so you lose out on those benefits. This is still a valuable benefit, but it comes with an opportunity cost.
- It used to offer Hyatt Platinum status.
- This benefit was eliminated on 1/1/19.
- It used to have better perks than the $95/year United Explorer card.
- The United Explorer card now has a limited signup bonus with the annual fee waived.
- The United Explorer card now offers more points per dollar spent on dining and hotels than the Club card.
- The United Explorer card now offers free Global Entry/Pre-Check, which the Club card does not.
- The United Explorer card now offers a 25% rebate on food, beverages and onboard Wi-Fi, which the Club card does not.
- The United Explorer card offers 2 free annual Club passes that you can give to anyone to use. The Club card comes with Club membership, but that’s only good if the cardholder is traveling.
- The United Club card’s annual fee has gone up from $395 to $450.
Brutal! I don’t think I’ve seen another card get devalued quite like this one. Citi Prestige could possibly give it a run for its money, though at least it got some new benefits to replace the more valuable ones that were killed.
Ironically, I think the United Explorer card is still the best co-branded airline card and is a must have for United flyers. The Club card can still make sense if you need the club membership and don’t care about the new restrictions or if you need the extra free checked bags a few times per year, but the case for keeping the United Club card is worse than ever.
Do you have a United Club card? Will you keep it active after the November elimination of club access when not flying United/Star Alliance and the end of the close-in award fee waiver?