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US Airways Doesn’t Get It

By Russ Starke on October 16, 2008

I’m quite sure we’ve all had our share of complaints with airlines—and this isn’t your typical “they lost my luggage/my flight was canceled/the service rep was so rude” rant. That would be like shooting fish in a barrel, and we know that the user experience on that end leaves a lot to be desired.

But there is another way that US Airways (in particular) doesn’t get it, and it has to do with the bone-chilling process of trying to book award travel with frequent flyer miles.

Most people who have tried to book awards travel with US Airways will tell you that throughout the process, you get the feeling that they don’t really want you to succeed (dark patterns). In response to that, some have said to me “well, of course they don’t—why would they want you to be able to fly for free?” and my response to that is, if that were true (and I sincerely hope it’s not true, though I have my suspicions), they shouldn’t have the program in the first place. So, giving them the benefit of the doubt, it should concern them that we feel that way—that we feel like we’ve faked them out if we actually manage to book a flight. Not good.

Part of this comes from the way that the Dividend Miles section of their website is set up.

Issue #1: Poor Information Architecture/Link Structure 

Now, you can pretty easily find out how many miles you’ve earned by clicking “My Account” under “Dividend Miles”, and you can book travel by clicking “Book Award Travel”. Pretty straightforward. Finding out how many miles you’ll need to score a trip is a bit more difficult—that is under ”Use Miles”. Not only did that take me several minutes to find, but it wasn’t a result of a logical thought process, like “based on the title of this choice, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get when I click it.” It was instead a result of thinking “well, what I’m looking for so far hasn’t been anywhere I’d expect it to be, and since there is no other choice that makes sense, I might as well start clicking them all until I stumble upon it.” That, for starters, made me feel like US Airways didn’t really want to reward me. They wanted me to get frustrated and give up.

Issue #2: Smart Clicks vs. Less Clicks; Confusing Navigational Redundancy

I realize there are more things you can do with miles than just book award travel, but I bet I know what happened there. “Book Award Travel” is a logical subset of “Use Miles”. Instead of making “Use Miles” the first choice, someone said “well, the most common thing that people want to do is book award travel, so let’s bubble that one up to the first selection under Dividend Miles”, even though it also exists under “Use Miles.” Two points about this kind of thinking: first, the old adage of “how many clicks does it take to do XYZ” starts to fall apart when you’ve got really complicated sites with a lot of functionality on them. Everyone wants their function “ONE CLICK AWAY!”, which results in a lot of mismatched things being moved to higher levels in the hierarchy. Second, this results in the kind of navigational redundancy that you don’t want—the kind that confuses people. See, “Book Award Travel” was one click away, but by the time I figured out how many miles I had and refreshed myself about how many miles you need (and a few other things), I had spent so many more clicks than if those things had just been organized intuitively. It’s not about how many clicks—it’s about smart clicks. I’m fine with a few more clicks if I’m making logical progress—then it’s mindless; it’s not work. Get Carl talking about that subject at some point—it’s a huge pet peeve of his.

Issue #3: Changing the Rules without Telling Us

But this is the one that kills me, and it’s really more about marketing and perception than anything else. Back when I was attempting to book my flights, the award chart (when I finally found the bugger) said that coach tickets were 25,000 miles for a round trip ticket excluding holidays, etc. That’s all it said. I was as far off-season as you could get, and every single combination of flights I punched in said that I’d need 50,000 miles. I called customer service and got a few different people, all of whom had different answers ranging from “that must be a mistake on the website, it’ll only take 25,000 when you book it” to “actually, that means 25,000 miles each way, even though it doesn’t say it”—so not only was the policy not communicated to customers, it wasn’t even communicated properly to customer service.

Let’s revisit that one statement, however—“actually, it’s 25,000 miles each way.” I had booked award travel before, and that was not the case. The website wasn’t telling me this was now the case. The metaphor for how I felt was this: it takes a LONG time to amass enough mileage to earn a flight…this was the equivalent of running a marathon, thinking you’re at the end of the race, and someone happily tells you “congrats, you’re halfway!”

Acknowledge it, and you own it. Hide it, and you’ve blown it. 

What is my point? Well, part of me just wants the cathartic release of blogging about this publicly. But the other part walked away with this: this episode happened right when gas prices were exploding and we all started feeling it, big-time. The fact that US Airways had changed their policy behind the scenes and not clearly communicated it made me angry for a few reasons, but probably the biggest was that I felt insulted—I felt like they thought I was too stupid to understand this simple equation: higher cost of fuel = higher cost of flying. Instead of owning it, and issuing a kindly and professional “we’re in this together” statement saying that the rising price of fuel that was affecting us all meant there would have to be some policy changes, there was silence—and what felt to me like an attempt to fool me into thinking that tickets could readily be had for 25,000 miles (turns out that those elusive fares are now called “mileage-savers”), which was, and still is, misleading at best. So instead of being mad at the situation (whatever its cause), and being mad ALONG WITH the airline, I was simply mad AT them.

The lesson: always err on the side of treating your customers as intelligent human beings who can connect the dots. You can choose to communicate early and openly, or take the risk of being seen as dishonest and like you’re hiding something. And if you ARE hiding something…well, what goes around comes around, my friend.

Aftermath: A Few Improvements

After this episode, I promptly canceled my US Airways mileage card (I now have an “anytime miles” card that is airline-independent…they don’t even know when I’m booking award travel! Tee hee!). However, I revisited the US Airways site for booking award travel before writing this to see if it had been updated in any way. Although the “travel chart” still doesn’t define what a “mileage-saver” is, when you try to book dates there is now a color-coded key telling you which dates are mileage-savers (25,000 miles round-trip), which are standard (50,000 miles) and which are blackout dates—a vast improvement from last time, when there was no explanation as to what those things even meant, let along indicators on the calendar. Picking dates was kind of like pin the tail on the donkey, but not nearly as fun.

For those who are curious:

Blackout Dates = any date within two weeks of something remotely interesting happening in the city you’d like to visit
Standard Dates = any other date that would be somewhat convenient to fly on
Mileage-Savers = a small handful of dates, always in the middle of the week, that would require taking a heap of days off from work to take advantage of (sucker!)

Epilogue

I still think the fact that roping people in by saying “25,000 miles for a round trip ticket!”, and then making it more difficult than panning for gold to find dates that apply, is dishonest. Another lesson: make people feel like they’re being abused or lied to, and they’re not going to like you very much. When people don’t like you very much, they will go elsewhere whenever they can.