Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Hawaiian Airlines Bid-to-Upgrade Auction Sucks

As it happens, we're leaving for Hawaii tomorrow for my wife's birthday. This is the trip that we've been planning for a while -- since our Napa trip fell through. It goes without saying that, we had a number of options for the flight -- I even considered using my United miles, but I could just imagine that unfolding into a very unpleasant birthday. However, on our previous trip to Hawaii, we flew on Hawaiian Airlines and we were reasonably amused by the experience. Besides, with Hawaiian Airlines, we could do direct from San Jose to Maui.

Booking the tickets on the Hawaiian Airlines web site was pretty straightforward -- it's one of those sites that shows you the fares for the different tiers of service. I like being able to see and compare the different fare tiers. For this trip, because the fare difference wasn't that significant -- and it was a special birthday trip -- I would up paying for first class on the return flight. Unfortunately, the outbound flight was about $700 more for a first class ticket, so that was out.

Then, about a week later, I received an email from Hawaiian Airlines, "Bid to Upgrade on Your Hawaiian Airlines Flight". If you are unfamiliar with this -- I was -- Hawaiian runs a system that allows you to bid on an upgrade to first class.

Initially, I liked the idea. From an economics standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Rather than arbitrarily assigning upgrades or leaving some premium class seats unfilled, it offers a more democratic method for allocating those seats. Instead, you can reach your theoretical price-point. This seems like a great deal.

At least, that was my initial thought.

When I first presented the idea to my wife, she was intrigued. However, once we loaded the interface and discovered that the minimum bit was $205 per seat, the whole thing turned into an argument. Suddenly, her price and budget concerns kicked in and overwhelmed any sense of birthday pampering. And now I felt stupid for having even brought it up. Mahalo.

After half an hour or so of debate, she decided that she might have been a bit hasty in her response and decided to leave the upgrade decision to me. Now, with an enhanced feeling of my wife's cost-sensitivity, I decided to go with the minimum bid. Then, about a week ago, I received a second email from Hawaiian. This one was titled "We are reviewing your upgrade request!" The subtitle was "INCREASE YOUR CHANCES FOR A FIRST CLASS UPGRADE", and here's the content from that email.
Thank you for making an offer for a First Class Upgrade via Bid Up by Hawaiian Airlines. We are currently reviewing all offers for your flight xxxxx, departing on April 26, 2017 and upgrades will be awarded soon.

To increase your chances that your offer will be accepted, would you like to review your current offer?
That's all of the information -- other than a return to the bidding screen -- provided. Needless to say, I did not change our bid.

The program says that it will let you know within 48 hours if you got the upgrade and will notify you 26 hours before your flight that you didn't, so when you don't get an email prior to the 26 hours, you've got a pretty good idea that you didn't get the upgrade. So that's kind of annoying. But there were aspects of the whole experience that were even more annoying -- downright sucking even. Let's run through them in a list.
  1. I didn't get to buy an upgrade -- even though I was told there might be a chance I could get one. This kind of sucks. 
  2. There's no insight into what's happening in the auction -- it's basically blind. While that may seem like it makes aspects more exciting, like the unknown chance of winning, it's actually very frustrating. It means that when Hawaiian Airlines comes back to you and says, "would you like to increase your bid", you don't know whether you're already sitting on a winning bid. It could be that they only send those "increase your bid" emails to people who are low bidders, but at some point, you're potentially bidding against yourself -- which is really uncool.
  3. Reason 2 is what makes the whole experience suck. Because instead of seeming like an equitable way to allocate first class tickets, the whole thing felt like a bait-and-switch scam for constantly squeezing you for more money for small aspects of service. Imagine if it was baggage fees. For $10 you can check a small, carry-on sized bag. for $50, you can carry on a regular carry on bag, but if you go in for the $10, you can bid for an upgrade to the size of the bag you can bring -- then repeatedly asking if you wanted to increase your bid. Contrast this auction system with one where you had visibility of the high bid -- like eBay. Then you might consider upping your bid. Or what if the system worked like Google Adwords bidding system, where your high bid meant that you only bid like $.05 more than the other highest bid? Anything along this line would have made this whole process feel less like an aggressive grift for more cash.
  4. After the entire experience, part of me feels like I'm owed an upgrade. Having been through the process and, essentially, having tried to buy one, I feel like I've been screwed. Like one of those parents who went looking for the "must have" toy during the Christmas holiday, only to have had one yanked from my hands by some other customer. Mahalo. From a customer service experience, this is not what I would want to come from my upgrade program. Rather, wouldn't it be better if Hawaiian Airlines just randomly upgraded you, like winning the Lotto. While not everyone would win, those that did would certainly feel rewarded.
So, after all is said and done, I've walked away from the whole experience kind of pissed at Hawaiian Airlines. In psychological economic terms, I've been primed to be unhappy and unsatisfied with my experience. That seems like a poor approach to customer service. Definitely an unpleasant way to start a vacation. Mahalo.

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