While there are a lot of things that are bound to change in the United/Continental merger, one of the most welcome changes will be a shift in how quickly things get done at the combined airline. See, United is shockingly slow at finishing what it starts while Continental gets things done relatively quickly. It all goes back to Gordon Bethune.
When Gordon Bethune took over at Continental in the mid-1990s, he found an airline in complete disarray. The onboard product was miserable and inconsistent, employees were unhappy, and I believe that each airplane had a different paint job.* (*Ever-so-slight exaggeration) So one of the things Gordon did was ensure that the airline was presenting itself in a uniform fashion. Even though the airline had almost no money left, he started painting the airplanes. And in a short period, the entire fleet was done. This may not seem important, but it does mean a lot to employees and helps act as the foundation for a single brand image.
United isn’t quite in the same position as Continental was back then, but the fleet looks like that of a bankrupt airline. While all Continental airplanes are painted in the airline’s livery (except for those that have received new United titles), United only has about half its fleet in the current pre-merger colors. The other half is still in the old battleship gray (aka Malevolent Skies) colors. You know when that livery went away? It was nearly 7 years ago, on February 18, 2004. And half the fleet still wears those outdated colors.
The result is something like this (via Flickr user Ack Ook):
There are a ton of dirty, faded airplanes out there. This may not be a safety issue but that doesn’t mean passengers won’t interpret it as a safety issue. It also confuses the already unclear brand. But really, this should be the least of United’s problems. The inside is probably a bigger issue.
On the domestic fleet, United has theoretically been installing new, slimline leather seats on its airplanes but so far just shy of one third of the airplanes have received the makeover. And internationally, United has been putting new flat bed Business Class seats onboard along with a refreshed First Class. This is a particularly interesting project to compare since Continental has been doing the same thing.
In July 2008, Continental announced it would start installing flat beds in business class. The first one went into service in November 2009, as planned, and Continental has just announced that all of the 777s are finished. The 757s are about two-thirds of the way there and the 767s haven’t started yet, also as planned. So in about a year, Continental has outfitted just shy of 50 airplanes and has lived up to most expectations.
Contrast that with United. That airline announced its new business class seat in July 2007, one year earlier than Continental. It said at the time that the entire international fleet would be done by the end of 2009. The first airplane didn’t get done until April 2008, and the 767s were finished about one year after that, a similar path as Continental has taken. But here we are one year after the original deadline and there are still forty 777s flying around with the old seats. The 777s weren’t even started until early 2010, after they were all supposed to be done.
Don’t even get me started on inflight entertainment. Every traveler on the Continental international fleet has a personal screen with nearly all of them having audio/video on demand. (The 767s that don’t will be updated.) United will have audio/video on demand in the premium cabins when the upgrade work is done, but the back is all of the place. In coach, the 777s will have audio/video on demand, the 767s will have personal screens with looping movies, and the 747s will still have the overhead video screens that are exceedingly rare these days.
I imagine that under Continental’s leadership, this process to bring toward a consistent product will speed up dramatically. That will go a long way in the airline’s effort to present a single brand, because right now, United presents a whole lot of different ones.