Today Senior Contributor R.D. Sussmann-Dewberry returns with an editorial on the current state of United Airlines. He has previously written fantastic pieces about the modern rise of Delta, the new American Airlines, the History of Low Cost Carriers, the History of Air Shuttles, The Middle East 3, Alaska’s purchase of Virgin America, United’s Polaris and Slim Line Seats and the spread of Basic Economy fares. R.D. has been involved with the airline industry for over 20 years and is an active travel consultant and airline analyst. R.D. is also a huge #Avgeek, a theme park enthusiast and a friend.
United – A Troubled Carrier
An Air Transport World OpEd recently talked about the severely damaged brand image that is United Airlines; namely, looking at what does the name United have left in it – and should it be changed back to Continental. Personally, this is a very grey area – but one that merits some discussion.
First, I’ll admit: I’m a hard-core ExCon loyalist. I logged over 1,000,000 miles on CO from 2001-2010 prior to relocating to my current home. I knew Houston Intercontinental airport like th back of my own hand, and got to know quite a few people at the various stations I transited over that timeframe. The service was universally good, the attitude of the employees friendly & accommodating, and the product in both cabins was always something I was willing to pay for. I loved CO – and they loved my wallet, something that airlines for the most part have forgotten to do: Love is a two-way tarmac.
A Tired Airline
Now let’s look at today at the current UA: Not withstanding the current social media meltdown (I have taken a very neutral stance on it; leave it out of this discussion please.) the current image has been going steadily downhill despite the rollout of customer service initiatives and new products (Polaris, Premium Economy). In fact, before the previous week’s incidents, UA’s brand was looking as tired as ever.
Equipment refurbishment has been much slower than anticipated, and there are currently so many configurations out there that it is hard to figure out which part of the fleet has what on it. The new seating is still being refitted to existing aircraft, and even though the outside says “UNITED” the insides say “UNTIED.” While some areas have been shown to be improving (Returning snacks to the beverage service for example) other locations are still suffering mightily – and it is dragging down on the brand image.
The Competition Is Investing
Meanwhile, other carriers are investing heavily in the hard & soft product offerings; leading the pack is Delta – making flying more civilized for more people to more places. (Author’s note: I’ll be writing a piece on the changes in economy coming soon.) Addition of full meal service in economy on transcon services, widening the offerings on the PDE systems, and looking at improving the airport experience is differentiating the Delta brand from others.
Southwest is continuing to invest in a new-generation of interiors on their new-delivery planes which are not only more comfortable, but feature better design & more space for the passengers. And even American is turning their image slowly towards a more customer-centric model- though slower than WN & DL are.
Enough Blame To Go Around
And then there’s UA. A very tarnished brand hauling around a few black eyes and a nasty reputation for delivering the worst in customer service, attitude & experience. And depending on who you are, fingers point in all directions on who is to blame.
“It’s Smisek’s fault” – I would agree with some of this. While he is an Ex-Con, he is definitely NOT in the mold of Kellner or Bethune. He was a lawyer-accountant, and certainly had more in mind for cutting costs and penny-pinching in the wrong areas. And he failed the combined carrier in that respect: Where others put money into a merger/buyout, he did the opposite, squeezing nickels & dimes out of both carriers until his ouster 18 months ago.
“It’s the PMUA’s fault” – I would agree there too. A lot of the PMUA staff came in with a chip on their shoulder, an attitude problem that was long-reaching. Having a management staff who bred an atmosphere of mistrust & of animosity didn’t help the attitude at all, and having the rug pulled out from underneath them numerous times made it that much worse.
“It’s the management’s fault!” – This too is relevant. The early Smisek management team at UACO holdings began to make some disastrous moves namely in the mindset of cost reductions and in trying to keep the companies personalities intact. In any buyout/merger, the best aspects of each have to come together. In this case, the management team drove out both of those – and created a ‘new’ image that neither carrier really represented.
Reasonably speaking: It’s a blame game with only one true answer: LOOK IN A MIRROR. Everybody has been unhappy since this process started 7 years back in 2010. And it is everybody’s chance to share the blame in the failed outcome.
And now, you have an image that people resent. If given a choice, even with my status at United, I’ll still pay more for Delta or Southwest. Why? I get the two things frequent travelers both demand & expect when flying: Service & respect. I believe in both of these. And I expect we should always have them. Unfortunately, both of these have disappeared at the current United – and it shows.
The suggestion has been made that United needs to change their name back to Continental. And while I love the name, and I’m loyal to it – without completely flushing out the problems from the combined carrier, it would be a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.
How to Fix This Mess
So what to do? How to fix United’s predicament? And how to turn the carrier around? Here’s a short list:
1.) Remove the staff that do not want to be there. This is an easy first step, as it was done by Bethune years beforehand: Ask people if they really want to stay. Are they happy doing their job? Do they believe in the carrier? Are they willing to give 110% to customer service, no matter what is going on? Those who say no go. Replace them with newer, younger & more motivated staff who DO want to work there and build a unified carrier. Have the people who do want to stay help to breed a sense of pride & of passion in their jobs & in their carrier.
2.) Stop trying to turn the soft and hard product into a cheap excuse for lower prices. Yes, the ULCCs are impacting the network carriers – but you do not see the other carriers bending down to match their product and then raising the bar upwards for what you are willing to pay for. It is time to alter this perspective, and choose to do the right thing and the right product for the majority of your passengers. Yes, you’ll have your ULCC chasers for bargain basement fares -but your real bread & butter are those who are flying frequently and who are subsidizing the bottom-dweller passenger fares. Instead of giving them the same crappy product, up the game -and change how you’re charging for your bargain basement fares.
3.) Up the ante, and up the game: As Delta & Southwest have both been learning: PEOPLE PAY FOR GOOD SERVICE! While they are concentrating their efforts on making every passenger feel good and with better service, they are also getting premium pricing in many markets, and filling their planes at the same time. The same goes for the ME3, for many Asian carriers & quite a few European longhaul carriers: People will pay for good service. People will fly other carriers for bad service.
UA’s network, system & fleet are admirable. They have strong & very easily dependable hubs in key cities, and have good market coverage. However none of this matters unless they are able to get their image and their product under control and drastically improve them to compete with both domestic & global competition.
And after that, rename the carrier. Once you have a product that people want to buy, give it a name that means quality and service. The name United means neither anymore – and more than likely never will again. What are your thoughts?