Attention Airlines: Less Information is Never Better

Delta, SFO - San Francisco, United

There has been a disturbing trend lately where airlines have apparently decided that less information is better for customers. It’s a strange belief that the airlines somehow know what we want better than we do, and it’s incredibly frustrating. So, airlines, please stop this ridiculousness. Do not treat us like idiots. More information is ALWAYS better. (I’ve heard plenty of arguments about when less information is better, but I disagree with them all.)

Need to Know

United Obscures Booking Codes
For years, United has had something called expert mode where it would allow people to see the raw booking class data on but the airline decided to shut that off. For most travelers, this meant nothing but for power users it was like gold. It looked liked something this:

Available Cabins: F2 A2 Z2 P2 RN0 R0 IN0 I0 Y9 B9 M9 E9 U9 H9 Q9 V9 W9 S8 T9 L9 K9 G0 N0 XN3 X0

Like I said, to most of you this looks like nothing. But it contained a wealth of data that was tremendously helpful for travelers. This showed award availability for frequent flier redemptions. It also showed upgrade availability. And while many may never have used this functionality directly, it was used in other things like KVSTool and ExpertFlyer to let people know when awards were available. Now it’s gone. Why? Apparently it was too “confusing” for many customers. Oh and United didn’t like that other services were using the data to help people.

So what now? United is supposedly working on “better ways to share this more meaningful information.” Uh huh. Stop hiding the data, United. It helped a lot more people than it hurt.

Delta Kills SkyMiles Convenience
How many of you use AwardWallet or something like it? The idea is that you have so many different frequent flier numbers and passwords that it’s a pain to keep track. Instead, a site like AwardWallet aggregates everything for you and uses the account information you provide to pull in all the details. It can even remind you when miles expire so it’s hugely helpful. But Delta has decided that it hates being customer friendly. It has joined with Southwest and American to block AwardWallet from accessing the information for users. This sucks.

There are plenty of different ways to look at this, but the reality is that whatever argument you want to make, customers like this service and clearly want to use it. So, Delta, stop being a jerk about this and let people access their information the way they want to access it. I don’t care about the legal arguments or anything like that. It’s what your customers want. (Same goes for you, American and Southwest.)

United’s Massively Confusing Operation in San Francisco
San Francisco’s terminals are laid out well. The airport has four terminals in a circle. The International Terminals site on the west end and serves all international flights. Terminal 3 is on the north end and handles United. Terminal 2 on the east end was recently reopened and now holds American and Virgin America. The rest of the cats and dogs fly into Terminal 1 on the south end.

Unfortunately, United needs more room than it has these days. It was supposed to take over American’s old concourse in Terminal 3 earlier this year but when the airport decided to redo the renovation plans, the reopening was pushed all the way to November of next year. That left United with a real problem on its hands because it didn’t have enough gates in its terminal for a long time.

United originally decided to run Southern California and Vegas flights from Terminal 1. But it didn’t tell people it was using Terminal 1. It made them go to Terminal 3 to check in and then take a bus over to the gate. Now it realized that wasn’t working very well so it has swapped things around again. According to spokesperson Charles Hobart, “most but not all” Express flights are flying out of Terminal 1. Which ones? Your guess is as good as mine. They are trying to put the smaller Embraer 120s and CRJ-200s over there but there isn’t a definitive answer.

You would think this is something that people should know about. After all, if you’re connecting, you might need some more time to get all the way over there. And if you’re a local, well, you would rather try to go directly to Terminal 1, but United has been strangely silent about this. There is a page on the SFO website describing what’s happening but United isn’t saying much at all.

I’m guessing that United assumes that it is so good with signage that it doesn’t need to communicate this to people. But United forgets that a lot of people are smart and a lot of people have flown United in and out of SFO before. They have certain expectations and if United isn’t publicly telling people that things are changing, then it’s a mistake. (They may very well have sent targeted emails, I don’t know, but that’s not enough.)

United is being cheap by not having ticket counters or baggage claim over at Terminal 1, but you would think that the airline would at least let people know that they can still go directly to Terminal 1 if they have a boarding pass and no bags to check. But no, they aren’t talking. The airline thinks it is keeping things simple by not giving people options, but people will find those options and then just be angry with United for not telling them they were available.

Instead, people need to rely on good sources like The B.A.T. to keep up with all these changes. That’s not how it should be.

All of these are examples of companies that think they have everything figured out. They know best, so they don’t want to give people more information than what these airlines have decided travelers need to know. There are different reasons for each, but the result is the same. Less information isn’t better. Stop trying to fight it, airlines. Give us as much info as you can.

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38 comments on “Attention Airlines: Less Information is Never Better

  1. I’ve recently started flying EWR – GSP on United a lot. 3-4 trips per month, due to a new client. Delta flies a bit to GSP from LGA, but United’s times are better – in theory, so that was the decision I made. United at EWR is in Terminal C. Express is in A, except when it’s not. Oddly, it seems like the surprises happen on the last flight back, landing late in EWR – and then we pull up into Terminal C. Not a big deal, except whoever is picking me up – family, car service – is in front of the wrong terminal. Occasionally happens in the morning too, last minute. Get thru security, get to the gate in A – and am told to jump on the bus to C. I get that things change, but really 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time?

    Also – information about delays. Hidden. I check the United app and get more current info on delays than the gate agent will give out, which of course makes little sense to me – unless United is using two systems for flight info.

    Finally, last bit of fun with info hiding? Last two times there were delays leaving EWR, the flight came off the boards – as though it had departed on time – and we were all left milling about the gate, waiting to see if we’d been cancelled or not.

    And just to be fair, I flew down on Monday and back home to EWR yesterday, and both flights were on time, no drama. (So yes, it does happen once in a while.)

  2. It’s not just the airlines keeping schtum, the airports are useless at keeping passengers up to date. In the past 4 weeks, I’ve suffered out-the-door queues at Faro and Dulles airport, presumably due to security line issues, but in both instances not a SINGLE announcement was made to attempt to explain what was going on. At Faro, at least 10 flights ‘closed’ on the monitors, despite most of the passengers being caught in the security line – in reality, these flights were held, but the passengers didn’t know that until they finally got to the gate. At Dulles on Sunday pm, none of the airport workers knew what the feck was going on, and most were overheard saying ‘I’ve never seen it this bad’ – and then you got through the Passport check point, and the queues disappeared, for no apparent reason (i.e. the passport checks were no longer than usual). A simple announcement to explain the ‘heavy volumes of passengers’ would have gone a long way to calm passengers frayed nerves.

    But, back to airline secrets, both UA flights I took at the weekend were subject to mechanical delays (one on UA metal, the other, on old CO metal) -in each case, after the initial announcement that the flight would be delayed, nothing……. Good stuff, Jeff, you’re making this merger transition run seamlessly.

  3. Have you considered the possibility that by giving away lots more info about seat availability on the website that it encourages customers to use metatools rather than the airline’s own website, thus reducing the chance for airlines to sell other ancillary items like hotel or car hire

    1. That is what the airlines want, but so what? If they can’t make a good business case for me to visit their site why force me to? If the airline does something good on their own site that I can’t get on a meta-site then I’ll visit the airline’s site. It is up to the airline to set themselves apart by providing good content, not by trying to act like bullies and stifle competition for eyeballs.

      1. In general for a company, the more intermediaries there are between the company and its end consumer of the product (the passenger), the harder it is to make a profit. Instead, the intermediary finds a way to make a bit of cash, and the producer of the product (e.g. the airline) is moved slowly towards being commoditised.

        All that seat availability info has real value. If it’s used directly by the end consumer, then fine, but if it’s used by an intermediary solely to make money, then the airline loses that bit more control of the relationship with the passenger.

        It’s not about trying to be awkward to passengers – it’s all about trying to push the intermediary websites out of the way, and keep retail consumers visiting,, and directly

    2. I don’t understand your logic – United was providing something valuable to customers on its website, encouraging people to use the website instead of an OTA. Now, people will be less likely to go to, since they can’t find the information there anymore.

    3. The information United was providing in terms of booking class was not being used by third parties to book. Instead it was just providing information people could use to search for award (and other) availability. They still had to go to or any other regular channel to book. If anything, as Rohit says, the information was on and not on other sites where bookings occur so taking it away makes it the site less useful.

  4. I Know on the PMUA site you could pick if you wanted to have the different classes ability shown as well as just the Airport codes threw your Mileage Plus profile why not do that on the New UA site and as for SFO they better hope Americans old gates get renovated quickly and end ahead of the time frame of late 2013

  5. I can understand airlines (or any company) not wanting another company to have access to data on their computer. It can be a security issue, just like you don’t want a security issue on your own personal computer and some company accessing your data.

    But not being up front about your own products/services is another matter. UA in SFO should be more open about its operations in Term1. Maybe if you book online they might send you info if your flight will be using term1, but no general email went out that I received as a mileage member living in the bay area.

    1. David – But the data on my computer is my data. If I want someone to have access to it, then that’s my choice.

      United and others are saying that the information isn’t the traveler’s data (because otherwise the traveler could opt to use the service) but rather United’s data. And they don’t want to play nice.

  6. As I recall United was getting a fair amount of customer service calls from the extra info, because it was wrong in some instances was it not?

    Is wrong info better than less info?

    1. Nick – If there’s an accuracy problem, then fix it instead of just getting rid of the info entirely. (I’ve heard that as well but I haven’t seen it myself.)

  7. United customer service got calls from me on a recent trip because Expert Flyer showed upgrades available and they didn’t come through for me so I had to call customer service to get the upgrades.

    1. So from United’s point of view, giving out all this extra information may have been been more trouble than it was worth ? If you haven’t got processes in place for something to run smoothly, is it better instead to not do it at all ?

  8. You forgot to mention all this United Information or lack thereof is useless
    when entire Reservations and Gate computer systems crash for hours.. 4 times
    since March 3rd computer merger… Also when flying out of SFO.. have been at gates in Terminal 3 when they suddenly change gates to International Terminal a nice 3/4 mile walk… I was advised by a higher up in C.R. that United
    uses International terminal for Domestic flights when they run out of gates at terminal 3…prior planning pays…. NOT

  9. Too little info; too much info! Like UA is just learning all this! Please!

    How the service is going to be provided. Take tomorrow’s (Fri. Sept 14) UA 753, BWI to LAS, with an intermediate stop in SFO. Neither the booking page on the UA web site nor the seat selection page tells you that you have to change planes at SFO.

    True, you don’t change “guage,” A320 #4292 in/A320 #4661 out. And yes, you might be seated in the same seat number on both aircraft. But, you still have to get your butt and cabin bags from one plane to the next and hope your checked bags make the change, too. Of course, to UA, this is “direct” service. Not like those other airlines who offer that awful “connecting” service.

    As to upgrading, does all this have to be made public on the web site for every nut, law official, or one-time significant other to see? See CHA, M is confirmed for seat 2B. SZT, T is in 1E. True, not the full name, unless you’re PEI, I or the like. I do like knowing my upgrade status, but the name, and then with a seat number of the soul who may have beaten me out? Privacy? What privacy?

    Oh, I forgot, “available cabins.” So, why didn’t I get that super-duper fare? I know, you just kicked that fare bucket down the road…not mine, of course!

    1. When UA has a point to point service between 2 airports they call it “Non-stop”. As you pointed out a “direct” service may have stopovers for equipment change, but the flight number remains the same. An “online connection” will be 2 UA flights connecting, each having different flt nos. And the others would be called “interline connections”. I would imagine it is the same for other North American carriers as well.

  10. United’s SFO-Canada flights are also a guessing game. Is it leaving from the International Terminal or Terminal 3 today? 50/50 shot, and I’ve guessed right only 2 out of my last 6 trips. At least you just need your hiking boots to get between Intl and T3 and don’t have to take a shuttle bus.

    My gf was flying YYZ-LGA on AC recently and delayed due to wx. I was giving her better information from than the gate agent or flight crew were getting. She was letting the flight crew know what the delay was long before the airline told them.

  11. With Delta joining the ranks of American and Southwest of limiting Award Wallet access, are mile aggregation sites like Award Wallet going to become a thing of the past (or at least less user friendly due to constant manual updating)?

    1. Bill – Not entirely. I still find (limited) value in using it as a place to store all my various numbers. I may not be able to check my balances but at least I have them all stored in one place. Of course, it hurts the AwardWallet business model significantly because there’s no way I’m paying for something that basic.

  12. Just flew UA for the first time in months-service was ok. But after reading this the real hoot is Jeff S. in his column in the inflight mag said “We are having issues due to the merger. This is unacceptable. We are working hard to become your favorite airline.” Sounds like to me you’re going in the wrong direction Jeff.

  13. RE: SFO Gates – I think the most “lack of info” issue is the whole gate NUMBER re-branding. Talk about misinformation! Your boarding pass says 92B or 92C – but those dont really exist, you can see folks wondering around the Gate 92 area looking for them. Why not just use the real gate numbers and better signs about a “fast” shuttle? It would be one thing if they bombarded UA fliers with extra emails, marketing, etc — but as a semi-weekly flyer to SFO I can tell you they sent me Nada. I think they knew it might be a cluster – so why bother pissing off folks with an email before it happens.

    1. Was at Terminal 1 in SFO yesterday. The best word that I can use to describe it was chaos. That terminal area was not designed for all of those commuter flights and the United staff just seemed completely overwhelmed. I will now go out of my way to avoid United as they seem to be on a downward spiral.

  14. Ahh Expert mode, always nice to have but not quite United Connection (RIP).

    The industry realized they gave away too much information on the web in terms of prices in the mid-2000s and are now trying to pull back the curtains. This is another inch in the curtain being pulled. But what will be interesting is with the DOT’s newfound interest on “disclosure” and transparency in pricing/fees is if the government forces those curtains back open again.

  15. terrific summary on sfo, one of the most beautiful airports in my opinion, and yes if you know the airport plan, it’s a fun place to sightsee….the tram that connects to bart is a blast, great vistas of the airport from all angles and terminal one isn’t soo terrible for delta and swa, once ua get’s their north side of the terminal properly done up it will be great…..look for united to go thru some severe teething pains over the next few years….sfo international terminal is beautiful, a grand front door to a very organized and getting better airport plan. am I correct that the old aa terminal is knocked down? or are they refurbishing? UA has good bones at SFO, but sending pax to one is a disaster.

    1. The old AA concourse (E) is being renovated and United will occupy it once it opens. It will all remain Terminal 3.

  16. United has not gotten this one right in quite a while. I had a CIC-SFO-CLT flight that used US Air on Terminal 1 to get to CLT in May. They used to run the terminal 3 to terminal 1 shuttle, so I thought that would work. Checked the lovely Hemisphere magazine, walked over to the “gate” where the shuttle was supposed to be, no dice. United had it wrong in their magazine. The shuttle didn’t exist.

    OK. Now the shuttle works again. That’s good, since the alternative is leaving security and taking the Air Tram/BART extension train they have — which is a ROYAL pain (you have to go outside, up a few escalators, down a few escalators, etc.). However the point is still the same: Deliver consistent, reliable, customer information. Too much to ask???

  17. I wonder how much of the awardwallet thing is about ensuring a certain % of breakage among mileage redemption.

    Not justifying, just seeking to ‘splane it. Thoughts?

  18. i know some people have an undying affection for things like award wallet, but i think it is psychotic to provide the login information for travel and credit card sites to a third party and trust them to secure that data.

    award wallet was the worst. it logged in and used cruddy screen-scraping programs to get your information. if i’m delta, AmEx, AA, or anyone else, i shut this down permanently. how can delta guard your information when they have no control or agreement with award wallet?

  19. United is a hot mess in San Francisco. A few weeks ago I was returning from Maui making a connection to the CLE then on to PHL. Something was attached to our boarding passes explaining some sort of shuttle between gates. After reading it multiple times I couldn’t fiqure it out. I fiqured it was safer to walk. We arrived at the international terminal and the F/A’s onboard kept saying just follow everybody. This at 445AM. That’s what we did and I thougjht I was walking to CLE. The Hawaii crowd isn’t always the most traveled bunch, and heaven forbid they had a connection to a US Airways flight. They would have been really lost, and I doubt that abrasive gang of F/A’s on the flight even knew what a code share was. Why not an arrival video like the European carriers often use?

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