United Global Services

In the world of frequent flier programs, the most coveted may surely be United’s mysterious and elite “Global Services” status. For those of you unacquainted with this magical creature, it really is the only way to travel. Far beyond mere 1K status (100,000 miles annually on United flights), it is something that frequent fliers speak of reverently when they talk about even the most grueling business travel.

How do you obtain entry to this prestigious program? The truth is that no one really knows. United Airlines does not disclose how it selects members, and there are no published criteria for how you get or retain this status. A while ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that came about as close as any I’ve ever seen to describing some of the keys to the castle: “Inside United’s Secret Club for Top Fliers.” The WSJ suggested that flying at least 100,000 miles a year is a minimum, but that heavy spend with United – perhaps more than $50,000 – and on premium flights and in premium classes of service (Business First and Global First) are what count the most.

Whatever the allure, I can tell you unabashedly that I’m part of the cult. I track my miles and spend with United, I treasure them, I obsess about them, and I work to do whatever it is that meets the magic formula of Global Services. As 2015 draws to a close, I have a spate of international travel coming up and much of it happens to be on United (sorry UAL, but you’re not always the most convenient or price conscious choice for me or my business). And there may be a few personal trips in there as well to round out the year. It’s worth it – every bit. Delayed flight? United puts you on a new connection without your even calling them. Cancelled plane? You’ll be immediately re-booked on any airline they can find to get you where you need to go. Making a tight connection? No worries, you’ll be picked up and escorted to your gate where planes are even held from departure for you.

My own experience with Global Services demonstrates why the program resonates so much with so many loyalists. In January 2013, returning from a wonderful trip to New Zealand, we arrived in Australia for our connecting flight to the US, only to learn that it was cancelled due to mechanical issues. If you’ve ever looked at the size of a 747, you’ll appreciate that re-booking that many people isn’t easy. Many of the passengers on the flight who were in first class were being told the best that could be done was a re-booking in two days. If you were in economy, well, you might as well have just renounced citizenship and decided to move to Oz (no complaints there – Australia and New Zealand are great places for relocation). But with my Global Services status, I went to the counter and asked the United personnel what they could do. The result?  A re-booking on a flight leaving for the US within 2 hours of our originally scheduled United departure from Sydney. Who else on the flight got this treatment? No one except me and one other Global Services member. For that, I am eternally grateful.  Sydney’s a great place but not when you have to get home from a 16 day vacation.

No matter what I do, however, I suspect I’ll never top one of my colleagues, who recently spoke at a dinner honoring him for his years of commitment to human rights, justice and religious liberty on a world stage. He centered his remarks on 10 things he is grateful for – unsurprisingly; they included his family, his friends and colleagues, his good health, and his excellent golf game. But high on the list – not first but nowhere near last – he said it: “United Global Services” – and the crowd gasped, not with shock but with admiration. Some true believers out there, that’s for sure.

So the other day, when I said to Chris that I needed to make sure I got Global Services status for 2016, he looked at me with horror and concern about how I had let there be the slightest doubt of this. I promised I would do my best to stay in the club-without-membership-applications. To which Chris replied that failure was not an option. So United, if you’re out there, I’m traveling and I’m with you.  Just keep me in the club – I can’t go back now that I’ve seen the Promised Land . . .

The Airport Lounge

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article about the changes to airport lounges.  Instead of having the traditional airline lounges, now credit card companies are getting in on the act, providing competition for the frequent flier, and especially the business flier market.

As someone who does travel a lot for business, I can appreciate the need for a little healthy competition in this area.  Although a few airlines have nice, marquee lounges – e.g. United’s international business lounge at O’Hare – the reality is that these lounges also aren’t what they used to be.  The days of luxury business travel, a la Don Draper, are a thing of the past.  While non-US airlines like Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, and Cathay Pacific, feature great lounges with pretty expansive food choices (including sandwiches, hot courses, free drinks, and even salad bars), the US airlines aren’t focused on those amenities.  At the United lounge in Chicago, for example, some chex mix, crackers and cheese, and free soda is about all you will get.  If you want a glass of wine, you’ll pay full freight and then some for that – cheap Chardonnay for $18 anyone?

So I’m open to what American Express and other credit card companies are doing to try to develop a new niche among those of us who use the lounges to do real work, including on some long layovers.  Maybe it will also make the US airlines step up and reconsider their approach to their most valued customers.

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