Customer Friendly? United Drops Interline Agreements With 5 Middle Eastern Airlines

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Actions speak louder than words. That was the message from United CEO Oscar Munoz in an email to customers last week in which he continued to apologize for the incident in which Dr. Dao was forcibly removed from his flight. The airline also revealed a list of ten policy changes that they believe will help prevent such a situation from occurring in the future. It ranged from promising not to call the cops unless it’s a matter of safety, to a no-questions-asked compensation policy for permanently lost bags.

One thing he didn’t say, however, was that United would continue to cooperate with other airlines in order to offer a more seamless travel experience for their customers. And to that end, United soon announced they would be dropping their interline agreements with five Middle Eastern carriers, including Emirates, flydubai, Qatar, Royal Jordanian, and Saudia, all as of May 5, 2017.

This is admittedly something that will only affect a small subset of customers, but it could potentially impact them in a big way.

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What is an interline agreement?

Interline agreements are agreements between airlines that cover how they interact with each other. These are things that most customers don’t think about or even notice on a regular basis, but they have some subtle yet significant effects. And they can really bail the airline (and you!) out when things go pear-shaped during irregular operations.

The most basic aspect of interline agreements is that it can allow you to check bags across airlines and tickets. Now you’ll no longer be able to check a bag from say Newark to London on your United flight, and then have it automatically transfer to your London to Dubai flight on Emirates. That means if you book such an itinerary, you’d have to go through immigration, exit security, claim your bag, and re-check it. At best, that’s annoying, but more likely will require a much longer connection.

Interline agreements also allow airlines to rebook their passengers on other airlines during cases of irregular operations. Say you were flying from Washington DC to Dubai via Frankfurt on a combination of United and Lufthansa. Previously, if the United flight cancelled or was significantly delayed such that you’d miss your connection, they could rebook you on the Emirates nonstop. That might get you to your destination with only a short delay. Now that will no longer be possible.

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Interestingly, it wasn’t all that long ago that you could actually buy a ticket right on that would include the final segment on flydubai if you were going to a secondary destination in the Middle East. I remember seeing some of those segments, particularly back when United flew to Dubai. Obviously, those are long gone.

Why did United drop these interline agreements?

Skift reports that United has interline agreements with over 150 airlines, which is sort of crazy when you think about it. So why did they drop these 5?

United didn’t really give an explanation for the change, but it’s probably a safe bet to assume they just don’t want to play nice with the Middle Eastern carriers anymore. There’s just not a lot of love lost between the US3 and the ME3. So it seems they’ll take any opportunity they can do thumb their nose at them.

My thoughts

I’m conflicted as to how I feel about the competitive threats from the Middle Eastern airlines. I’m not quite onboard with the rest of the travel pundits (and most of Team OMAAT, for that matter) in believing that Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar should just be allowed to run rampant when expanding routes into the United States. I’m not saying I’m against it, I’m just not sure how I feel about it.

I will say that I don’t find the argument that it’s okay that the ME3 are highly subsidized because the US3 have received government benefits to be very persuasive.

That said, dropping interline agreements is not the way to go about it. It’s sad that we seem to be entering a go-it-alone era where nobody needs to cooperate about much of anything.

My in-laws experienced this first hand when they were trying to get from Daytona Beach (and then Atlanta) back to Detroit during the Delta operational meltdown. I found them perfectly acceptable flights on American that were only lightly loaded and would get them in the next day. But Delta was unable to rebook them on these flights because they no longer have an interline agreement with American in place, arrogantly believing that they don’t need any assistance. Instead, they told my in-laws that it would be three days before they could get them on a flight going anywhere near Detroit. That’s pathetic. They rented a car and drove home instead.

I guess my point is that when our US airlines can’t even cooperate with each other, it’s no surprise that they don’t feel like working with their Middle Eastern counterparts. And somehow, I expect things are going to get worse before they get better.

Bottom line

United is paying lip service to becoming a customer friendly once again. But their actions indicate otherwise.

Perhaps the part that is most curious to me is the timing of this announcement. I know that when I got in trouble as a kid, I would be on my best behavior for the next few days hours and try to fly under Mom’s radar, knowing that anything I did would be scrutinized. To put it simply, I’d try to play nice with everyone.

I guess United has a different philosophy.

What do you make of United dropping their interline agreements with five Middle Eastern airlines?

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