Today’s article comes from R.D. Sussman who has previously written fantastic pieces about the modern rise of Delta, the new American Airlines and the History of Low Cost Carriers. He 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 and theme park enthusiast.
Before I settle into this, I want to let the audience know: I’m a Global Service on United, inherited from my Diamond Lifetime status at Continental. I flew over 1,000,000 miles on CO from 2003-2009, commuting from the east coast to the west coast twice a month or more over that duration of time.
When I first flew with CO back in 1988, they were still under the thrasing that was the Lorenzo Era – sub par service, unidentified branding & a morass of mess that was their network. At the same time, United was rapidly becoming the gold-standard for airlines, with a reputation for quality, service & performance unmatched by others – a network that saw them gain a foothold in the Pacific, and a future that was getting brighter by the month. CO, of course, would go through another six years of tumultous living before finding the leader they deserved in Gordon Bethune. United continued to grow, to form the Star Alliance & form deep partnerships with foreign carriers strengthening their network further, and maintaining their levels of quality service.
By 2001, things had turned around at Continental. Bethune’s leadership & strategic operations had turned them around, and made them profitable, strong & powerful in any market they enter. Passengers flocked back to CO, as they showed that quality & service meant the world. Of course, 2001 also brought the most dramatic change in our airline industry, one that would change the tables permanently – and also lead to an unholy union in the end.
By 2003, United was failing fast: Poor service, massive job cuts, a product that was lagging behind many other carriers and an aging fleet were dragging hard on their bottom line, eventually leading to bankruptcy. Meanwhile – Continental continued to survive, even the darkest days, while growing successfully and maintaining their reputation for quality, service & on-time performance. And this showed: Of the major airlines in the USA in 2001, only Continental & Southwest survived the decade without a bankruptcy filing, and both were able to turn profits throughout the decade.
CO’s fortunes were excellent – passenger yield per mile was the highest in the industry, and their high-end customers kept the airline’s coffers full. While UA fell, CO was rising – and making money while doing so. However, storm clouds were rising, and in the tide of Delta’s buyout of Northwest, Continental began to look for new alternatives.
Enter Smisek. Jeff Smisek was third in line at CO under Bethune, and took the helm as then-president Larry Kellner retired. And the changes started almost immediately. Meals which were free to all passengers disappeared, the last major airline to do so. Luggage which was free soon came with a fee. And the quality service that CO was known for began to disappear as fast as it could, all in the name of money. Over at United, they were still floundering after emerging from bankruptcy, and demoralized staff were dragging the carrier down. Of course, Smisek thought, what a great time for a buyout!
In 2010, Continental announced the ‘merger’ of United and Continental (though it was in fact Continenal’s buyout of United) and that the surviving carrier would be called United, though using the CO colors & logos. Over the next 18 months, Smisek pushed the two airlines into one – and the trouble began.
The United Experience
Last spring, I had the opportunity to take a flight on the combined carrier for the first time since relocating to the west coast. My trip was via the Chicago base outbound, the Houston base returning – and I can say that everything you’ve heard about United is true, and in many cases worse. Being Global Service with United is a good benefit – when you can use it – but as of late it has become difficult to see what parts of this service are available and which are not. In many ways, this is a huge problem for the best frequent flyers.
Starting at check-in, surly supervisors & staff greeted me as I checked in, and through an embarrassing few minutes, I was berated for (gasp) using CASH to check a bag in! How dare I! Fortunately, a sympathetic employee DID get me taken care of, but the mold was cast: Boarding was a nightmare, with tiered boarding groups so badly crammed together that I couldn’t find either a place to sit, or the right place to board from; indeed, when handicapped boarding took place, I had to figure my way through gate lice to get TO the entryway for the plane.
On board, I can say the crews were among the best I’ve seen at either United or Continental. Friendly, attentive & polite, they were definitely a good spot on the trip. However, the lack of catering onboard meant no food for sale in economy, and basic snacks in First – on a 4 hour flight to Chicago. Fortunately, a 2 minute stopover in the terminal provided me with some basic food for my flight.
Let’s forward to ORD: I’m handicapped, and require a chair for gate changes in larger hubs. To my chagrin, none was waiting for me, and with a 48 minute connection time at ORD, I didn’t have time to wait for it. I did make my connection, but with precious few minutes to spare. Fortunately, the flight was short to my final destination.
Returning to Phoenix, the crews were again great, and showed that they cared. The ground crews at Houston (the largest hub in the United system) were among the surliest I’ve ever dealt with at an airline. A three hour layover meant I had time to spend at the United Club at E terminal, where I found little in the way of food offerings, and instead opted to find food in the terminal. Unfortunately, getting a motor ride to the food court was nearly impossible, combined with (again) as surly gate agent, meant I walked it – with loaded pack.
What Went Wrong?
Needless to say, this was a bad showing on United’s part. And it isn’t the only horror story about the current state of affairs at United; pages on Facebook & all over the web note the poor operational performance at United. Customer service issues have pushed UA up to the top of the DOT complaints list, sharing the space with Spirit, Frontier & Allegiant. This, from a carrier trying to become a global carrier with par to Delta or even American.
So what went so horribly wrong at United? There are so many possible answers here that it could fill a whole column. For me, it is Smisek’s pennypinching in terms of the customer product offerings domestically, as well as the merger of two unlike carriers with different corporate cultures. But in the end, it now comes down to the recently ousted Jeff Smisek, who was terminated last week on 9/8/15. While he made the bottom line shine, and profits soar, he did so at the cost of the passenger as well as to that of the staff at the combined airline. United’s product offering is not much better than that of a ULCC, and while JetBlue, Southwest & Delta are all investing big bucks in improving the passenger experience, United’s lacks greatly in comparison. United has come untied.
The new CEO, Oscar Munoz, has his hands full starting on day 1. Labor unrest combined with falling passenger counts are just one part of what must be done to turn around the carrier. Customer service must be improved, and not just the lip service given to complaints. Both the hard & soft products now offered domestically & internationally lag behind American & Delta, and are in dire need of improvement. Staff members who have been through this merger need healthy retraining on the focus being the customer – and not just their dollars – which fuels the airline and the growth therein. And management needs to be more adept at negotiating the twists & turns that are the current operational environment. They need to remember the staff are the face of the airline, and not just automatons to the public.
United may be making money – but unlike their competition, they are holding themselves back. It is time to bring United’s product into the 21st century, and to bring back the spirit that fueled Continental to greatness during an era of mass failure.