United Airlines’ new frequent flier security — who thought this was a good idea?

Security and passwords are important, especially when they’re used for something you care about. And, most frequent travelers care very much about their mileage and accounts. United Airlines, one of America’s largest, is changing its frequent flier security.

United is adding a password and is going to require security questions as part of its new frequent flier security. Anyone trying to do anything with reservations involving upgrades and/or miles is going to need to know the answers to those questions.

Here is a bit of United frequent flier history.

After merging with Continental Airlines, United Airlines went to a four-digit PIN system for its Mileage Plus accounts. Security specialists agree that the PIN is not particularly secure, especially as my guess is many people used very simple PINs. (No way of knowing how many travelers used 1234.) Now, United fliers, and their travel agents, are facing a frequent flier security upgrade.

The solution, in some cases, may be worse than the problem.

As a travel agent, many of my clients are United frequent fliers with high-status, Global Services and 1k included. (An aside: While I’ve had plenty of clients who’ve had credit cards compromised, I don’t know anyone who’s had their Mileage Plus account hacked.)

travel_agentMany, if not most, agents don’t book free tickets for clients. The potential problems, especially having no control over the record, are too great. However, it’s a very different matter when clients want paid tickets for business or pleasure, but want to use their earned upgrade for the trip or to upgrade with miles.

So, like many travel agents and administrative assistants,  I thus have many of my regular clients’ PINS to help them with upgrades, along with things like same day changes and airport problems that we can’t fix in our own computer. Normally, it works out well for all concerned. But, United’s frequent flier security is about to change.

Anyone trying to do anything with reservations involving upgrades and/or miles is going to need to know the new password (not a major problem) and the answer to security questions (a major hassle). Period. Get the answers wrong and the account will be locked.

This includes not only travel agents and assistants calling or going online on behalf of a traveler, but also family members.

Some frequent fliers like to do all their own travel booking online or by phone. They’ll be fine, if they can remember their answers — favorite book, favorite teacher, favorite pet….? But, most frequent fliers are relatively busy people, and they like having someone take care of things for them, especially when there are long hold times and questions involved. Even elite level fliers with special numbers can have long waits.

A Global Services client emailed me recently that she had done an award ticket for her daughter the night before, spent over an hour on hold and on the phone, and told me how glad she was that I could generally take care of the calling for her and take care of frequent flier issues on business trips.

It’s not just simply upgrading and changing flights; sometimes it’s useful to talk to a human United agent — seeing which flights might have the best upgrade chance, or linking an elite member’s record with their child’s booking, etc. Speaking as a travel agent, or administrative assistant, it’s often easier to sit on hold than it might be for a traveler, particularly when they’re on the road.

Perhaps United is trying to push people to their website and app. Or, maybe this is just something they didn’t think through. For example, I’ve talked to travelers who couldn’t answer their spouses’ questions. And, personally, I have no idea what my family has answered for their personal questions.

One traveler who emailed United to complain was told, “If you want to share them with your travel agent or other family members, that is up to you.”

However, leaving aside the logistics of keeping track of dozens of peoples’ security questions and answers, my guess is that travelers really don’t want that kind of information floating around, either, because there’s no way of keeping track without putting the information in some sort of online file.

A smarter solution might be for travelers to be able to designate up to, say, 3 to 4 people who have access to their account — for example, a significant other, an assistant, a travel agent — and then require those people to have their own Mileage Plus accounts, so they only have to answer their own questions. Then a United agent would only have to say, “Okay, you say you’re Suzie Doe — what’s your account?” and go from there.

This will take an extra minute and won’t eliminate all problems; people change roles, relationships, etc. But then, the onus will be on the traveler to make sure the names are up to date. A little bit of  personal responsibility is a lot more reasonable than their current, personal-question solution. It can’t be much worse.