Dulles-based Independence Air's first flight isn't scheduled for another two weeks, but that's not stopping United Airlines from trying to make the launch as difficult as possible.
Last week, United e-mailed thousands of its Washington area frequent fliers to tout the difference between its award program and the one offered by Independence. The new low-cost, low-fare carrier is being formed by Atlantic Coast Airlines, United's former marketing partner at Dulles before their relationship soured in a financial dispute.
Independence immediately fought back with a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation, claiming the campaign contained distorted and inaccurate information about its program.
If an administrative judge finds United guilty, the airline could be fined $25,000, DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said.
Kerry Skeen, Independence Air's chairman and chief executive, said he expected competition from United, but nothing like this.
"I don't know if there's hard feelings on their part and they're upset that we left the program, but this is a pretty irrational approach," he said.
In the e-mail, United said an Independence customer "would have to fly this route 17 times" between Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Dulles to qualify for a free ticket. But a United customer, the message said, would have to fly the route only six times. The e-mail said the calculation was based on the lowest round-trip fare between the two airports -- $178.20.
As a further jab, United reminded its frequent fliers that it has more locations than Independence Air, whose destinations it said are currently are "all east of the Mississippi."
United's example, however, was a little creative. Although it cited a round-trip fare in its example, the 17 flights are one-way, not round-trip. So, as Independence spokesman Rick DeLisi correctly pointed out, the traveler would need 81/2 round trips with this example, not 17.
Also, DeLisi said, United's example assumes the traveler purchases the cheapest ticket each time. If the traveler purchases a more expensive ticket, it would take even fewer trips to earn the free ticket.
Independence bases its frequent-flier miles on the cost of the ticket, awarding travelers one mileage point for every dollar spent. After earning 1,500 points, a traveler gets a free round-trip ticket. United, like most other traditional legacy airlines, passes out bonus points based on the miles flown.
Independence asked the government to force United to e-mail its frequent fliers to notify them of the inaccuracies. "United's promotion is misleading and is intended to injure Independence Air in the competitive marketplace at the formative stages of its operations," the complaint said.
United defended its e-mail. "No matter how you add it up, the example we used is accurate," said United spokeswoman Chris Nardella. "You still have to fly more trips on Independence than United to accrue the same award. . . . We did not mislead anyone intentionally."
The competition has become a little personal for United for several reasons. First, Dulles is United's East Coast hub and has been for 15 years. Second, Atlantic Coast was United's business partner for 14 years before the regional airline decided to end the relationship and transform itself into a low-cost, low-fare carrier, based at Dulles. And to further alienate the world's second-largest airline, Independence has the audacity to fly into O'Hare, United's hometown airport.
In the past few months, United has blanketed Washington area billboards, TV and radio with ads and offered thousands of extra bonus miles to travelers flying in and out of Dulles.
"United is the incumbent. They already have a broad base of frequent-flier members," Skeen said. "We're not opposed to fair competition, but we take exception to this."
Some local frequent fliers said they were surprised by the e-mail. Arlington-based traveler Adil Marghub said United indirectly gave free advertising for Independence Air. "I had never heard of the airline until I got the e-mail. It doesn't matter, though, because I am still going to fly United," Marghub said.
Washington-based attorney Frank Young has more than 1 million frequent flier miles on United. He said instead of sending this kind of e-mail, United should "be more concerned with giving better customer service."
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