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

Filed Under: United

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.


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?

  1. This is not creating problems for the ME3; this is creating problems for UA customers. Having to go thru immigration, collect your bag, recheck it, then go thru security again, along with having to allow several extra hours to do that, is a giant imposition. What’s worse, for those that don’t read travel blogs, and thus most likely won’t hear about this, they will only find out when they go to check in for their initial flight. At that point it may very well be too late to change their flights to allow for the extra time. Especially for anyone with a non-changeable ticket this is going to be far more than an inconvenience. It’s going to be a huge problem.

    And United is only giving 4 days notice of this! So anyone already booked past that point with a non-refundable ticket for a combination of ME3/UA flights and a short lay over is SOL.

    Is Munoz actively trying to put UA out of business?

  2. Well, this sounds as having about the same consequences about trying to transit through the US: go through immigration, hope to get your bag, and check in again.
    I think it is consistent to subject US citizens now to the same treatment as foreigners receive.

  3. The whole purpose of an airline is to connect us to the world. This is a huge step backwards.

  4. What do I think about it you ask. It is really bad. It means you have to leave about 4 hours for a connection, just in case something goes wrong.

  5. I agree with Robert it’s hurting US traveler’s more so than the M3 I have been flying non US metal International for 10 years now and do not miss it. I would prefer as an American to do so but what’s the point, it’s not like your flying on metal that’s not in the Smithsonian, friendlier cabin crews, eatable food nor convenient.

    The US carriers are spoiled and it’s all about their returns to investors not the flying public. And of all people UA, really?

    Ah for the days of PA and TWA

  6. More reason to Fly Alaska Virgin america and Jet Blue when possible. I try to avoid delta since they dont even interline on partners when a separate ticket is booked and now united. When are they going to realize that customer in the know avoid airlines that do these things and those who don;t know will be angry when they show up can they cant check luggage all the way through. And then airlines wonder why passengers are so rude…shove them into seats as small as possible and take away an convenience.

  7. Maybe by doing this, they are playing nice with ‘Mom’. This is political, just like the electronics ban. This is just part of the protectionism the US3 paid good money in campaign contributions to get.

  8. @ron

    It’s not exactly the same. I transit in the US sometimes and even if it’s true that I have to get my bag, I don’t need to re check it. I just need to drop it somewhere else, very close to the place where I got it, after picking it up.

    Having to get it, go past security, go from arrivals to departures, go to the checkin again, wait your turn…it’s a whole different thing.

  9. I think people here are making a mountain out of a molehill. United knows exactly how many pax and how much revenue is associated with these agreements. Since united dropped Dubai, there probably was nowhere near as much demand for this anymore. I don’t think this is a big deal at all, and thinknthat some of the responses above are just people looking for another reason to bash united.

  10. I think this will primarily affect United airlines customers. Furthermore, this shows you how much United Airlines cares about their customers. Zero zilch. I for one would never choose to fly to connect with the Middle Eastern carrier. I would simply start with the ME carrier and be done with it. United sucks no question about it

  11. Dear United,

    Hello? Are you morons?

    About 10 years ago (yes, it was a different world and the ME3 had nowhere the reach they do now) I was flying a revenue first class ticket IAD-UA-FRA-LH-JNB, leaving IAD Friday night, arriving FRA late in the a.m. Saturday, long layover over in the FC terminal, and then LH Saturday overnight to arrive JNB Sunday morning. This would ensure I would be able to be at work and attending meeting in Johannesburg on Monday. Yes, I give myself a full day due to both the possibilities of delays and trying to acclimate a day ahead.

    It looked like the outbound UA flight IAD-JNB was going to be delayed ~2+ hours. No big deal, but if it cancelled, I needed a backup.

    I went to the UA first lounge at IAD and the agent booked/protected me onto a Saturday morning BA flight to LHR, giving me a 90-minute connection to make the late SA flight into JNB, all while keeping me on the UA flight.

    30 minutes later, the UA flight to FRA started boarding, thank goodness. I was very thankful to the UA agent in the lounge for so quickly protecting me.

    Now, with SO MUCH MORE info. at our fingertips, had I found flights that would get me somewhere that included a ME3 carrier and was told “Sorry! We don’t like them so we refuse to get you to your location with them!” would make me seriously reconsider my loyalties to UA. Of course if all the US carriers plus their global partners do this, then I’ll be stuck, but that would likely be collusion at that point.

    United, don’t forget that you have paying pax that need to be where they need to be, irrespective of your bad mood.

  12. In any case the easy solution here is to just travel end to end with the ME carrier. They anyway provide a much better service so I would not see any reason why anyone would even consider flying United.

  13. @Lucky Etihad is not listed. I wonder if your Star Alliance rumors are behind that.

  14. I don’t see Etihad on the list and why are flydubai, Jordanian and Saudia included?
    This doesn’t sound to me like something that has to do with the subsidies/open skies saga. There must some other explanation.
    In any case though, it sucks.

  15. I doubt this will affect United that much. UA is a member of star alliance and has partners Turkish Airlines, Egypt Air, and Ethiopian covering most of the airports in the Middle East in case they need to reroute you.

  16. This actually might be bigger problem. What if the passengers do not have the visa to clear the transit point immigration?

  17. @aziiz The only reason I can think of them not including Etihad is due to the LH partnership and/or rumored entrance to Star Alliance. The fact that they didn’t include Etihad might also mean they wouldn’t veto Etihad’s entrance.

  18. I…..can’t…..believe…

    Seriously, how much more screwing up can United do? Granted, this will affect a very small portion of their customers, BUT to those it affects, the results can be huge.

    @ghostrider5408: I’m right there with you — foreign metal as often as possible. Not all foreign carriers are great, but United’s starting to make Air Koryo look good.

  19. How would you even book an multi-airline itinerary on airlines without an interline agreement? I don’t think they’d show up in OTA results.

  20. How many United passengers are actually connecting to Emirates or FlyDubai on the same PNR?

  21. OMG, who cares? Sure, interline agreements are useful when it comes to checking bags through to your final destination, and occasionally when there is an operational snafu. UA no longer really flies to the middle east, which means there won’t be so many situations when they’d have to rebook a passenger on a middle-eastern carrier (perhaps flights to Africa? But there would be many other options to be rerouted via Europe). Still plenty of other carriers UA will rebook you on if necessary. Domestically, UA has a bigger number of interline agreements than DL does and has often rebooked me on DL and AA. So I doubt there will be more than a couple of passengers who will care about this, but by all means, let’s all jump on the bash-united bandwagon and/or tell each other anecdotes of how we almost missed a UA flight once and almost got rebooked on BA…

  22. @augias, I’ve long since learned that making light of customer unfriendly policies just because I don’t think I’ll be personally affected is a bad idea. I doubt I will be affected by this one, since I avoid checking bags at all costs, except when flying Southwest. Yet every time a carrier does something that harms the customer experience needlessly, I think we should push back. Let them know people are paying attention. They will do everything they can get away with. This time it’s unlikely to affect me directly, but next time it will. And to those who say to fly only foreign metal, that’s very difficult where many people live. I’ll always need to make a domestic connection first, or drive many hours.

  23. I don’t buy the idea that they were “arrogantly believing that they don’t need any assistance” in this case during the Delta meltdown. DL cut the AA tie mostly because AA dumped passengers on Delta when they needed assistance, much more so than Delta. That removed all the benefit of the interline agreement in the first place, so it was cut off there.

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