Travel Day or Why United Needs to Rethink their Mileage Security Practices

The following post is brought to you by a layover at the Denver airport and Joiku Spot wifi via my Nokia N95.
After a long drive home from Arizona last night, I found myself at home backing up my work computer, charging the old school 12″ powerbook, targeting them together to transfer needed files and mail, and going to bed way too late. Seven-thirty a.m. came much too quickly and the rush to walk Scruffy, pack, and then get out of the house by 10:30am. Done.
There was trouble at the United counter at LAX, as the person who booked the gift ticket for me was not with me upon check in and the United folks would not check me in without the giftor and their credit card. Really. Truly. Very frustrating.
Interwebs, please note the following, United’s system is currently such that if you purchase a ticket or gift a friend with your extra miles and then you pay the taxes on the phone or in person, then the giftee can check in without you.
But if you purchase a ticket online or gift your miles online to a friend and then use your credit card, then you either need to call United to get the “fraud” hold taken off the reservation and paper tickets issued or go to the departing airport before departure (even up to a month beforehand, I was informed by the 1st check in agent) to prove to United that you really do want to gift these miles to your friend or purchase the ticket for them. <sarcasm>As we all know, fraud only happens online and a company must protect itself</sarcasm>
After an incredibly unproductive conversation with the check in agent who was convinced that United was protecting my friend from me the fraudster, and she kept saying that because the ticket was booked over a month ago that gave my friend ample time to come on down to United at LAX to show her credit card (said friend was in Turkey & Germany most of the last month earning more United miles). When we reached an impasse of which neither of us wold budge and I was on the verge of losing my temper, she informed me that I should go to ticketing who could refund my friend her “substantial” ticketing fee & taxes and they could use my credit card instead.
The “Future Ticketing” agent was much more helpful. He took my passport & reservation confirmation number, looked at the file on his screen, and asked me how he could help me. I explained that the trip was a gift from friends who used their miles to book the ticket, said friends were at work and could not come to LAX to prove that the reservation was legitimate. He told me the rules and that anyone could use anyone else’s United frequent flyer mileage number to book a ticket with a miles reward and that the credit card that paid for the fees and taxes was needed to prove that the miles were not used fraudent. He asked if I would be willing to have my credit card charged and my friend’s card credited. I said yes and handed over my card. He took it and continued to stare into his screen.
A minute or two lapsed, the agent passed my card back to me uncharged and said, “Over a month has passed since this ticket was issued, so I can let it pass because if it was fraud the person would have complained about a wrong charge to their card.” He issued my ticket, weighed my bag, put the bag onto the conveyor belt, and told me to have a good trip.
Many kudos to the Future Ticketing agent who used logic and reasoned out the situation, but minus kudos to United for having a system that allows anyone to cash in miles as long as they have a person’s mileage number and then put the security check at the airport which harasses the travellor and not where it should be in the first place – which is at the time of ticketing.
A possibility for United, if they are concerned with online fraud, is to call the frequently miles holder to confirm that they were the person to book the gift ticket or miles transfer ticket rather than harass the giftee at the airport or force their frequent flyer miles holder to take extra steps (like take a day off work to go to the airport to present their credit card). I have a credit card of which they will call me every time a purchase is made over a certain amount to confirm that I made the purchase, once they even called while I was at the Apple store to confirm the purchase.
The upswing is that I know my friend and someone at United is going to hear all about this. The other upswing is that United did not gain another customer today but after this bit of making my birthday gift a trial, I will make sure I fly American even if United is a tens of dollars cheaper.
Why American? Well, American does not quibble with you if someone has gifted you a ticket and can’t accompany you to the airport, they check you in without a half hour of hassle and raised blood pressure.