Continental’s Willingness to Work Quickly Will Be a Welcome Addition at United

Continental, Seats, United

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.

United Continental Implementation Speed

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 And half the fleet still wears those outdated colors.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):
A LIttle Dirty

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.

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44 comments on “Continental’s Willingness to Work Quickly Will Be a Welcome Addition at United

    1. I’m with you Perry. I think that’s one of the best liveries out there and so much better than anything else United has flown!

  1. Sounds like United has been has been mirroring the FAA’s NextGen debacle in its aircraft mods program. I’m guessing UA board member Jane Garvey must be in charge of it. (insert “roll eyes” emoticon)

  2. How long did it take Southwest to repaint all their aircraft with their “new” livery?

    As for the speed of the C/F cabins… Ultimatel it depends on how many aircraft you want to have in the shop at the same time, doesn’t it? UA apparently decided to do one at a time to be able to maintain it’s schedule and, you know, make money with them :)

    1. When Southwest announced it was repainting its fleet, it said it would take 10 years because it was just going to do it on the regular painting schedule. This was also different – it wasn’t a rebranding. The colors changed but the logo and everything else stayed the same. So it wasn’t really that big of a change.

      Actually, I believe the problem with United’s update to premium cabins was around not realizing that it had a in-seat video problem on the 777s. That’s why it took so absurdly long – it’s something you’d think would have been caught before.

      1. From what I have read, UA repainted their fleet on a regular painting schedule as well (except when it came to rebranding the TED fleet). There was no “rebranding” when going from battleship gray to the most recent UA livery. The colors changed, but the logo (Tulip) and name stayed the same.

        My bottom line argument is that people (passengers) don’t really care what livery a plane has. If the price is right, they’ll fly on it, whether it’s the most recent livery or the previous generation. SWA has shown that, and UA as well. In other words, there isn’t much to be gained by repainting aircraft just for uniformity.

  3. I hope this does end up being true. However, the fact that the “new” United livery is simply a warmed over Continental livery with United titles gives me pause. I can see the old United liveries and the new livery hanging around for quite some time together and not coming together for quite some time.

  4. Ugh. These days, I’m one of those guys who plans that really nice once-per-year (if that) trip. You know, one of those things where everything has to be perfect, ’cause you’re shelling out a good amount of cash out of your own pocket? The kind of trip you plan almost a year out? (Spoiler alert — I didn’t book UA, but Cathay Pacific.)

    I absolutely hate these infinitely-stagnating fleet upgrades. The airline lures you in with the new product, but then a little bit of research suggests that oh, no, they barely started their upgrade process, but it “should” be done by the time you fly. Then, they like to do these fleet by fleet. Now, one has to be an even bigger expert than me to figure out that even if the upgraded fleet type is assigned to your route when you book, that it will remain the same when you actually fly.

    IMHO, (I’m not an expert in marketing) but I feel an airline does itself a disservice by promoting a product that isn’t available fleet wide when it is supposed/projected to be. If the airline has to take eons for the improvement, save the money and get done as quickly as possible. You’ll protect your brand better that way. Nothing’s worse than booking not knowing what you’ll get.

    1. Agreed. United is making this worse, too — when you buy a ticket on, you are prompted if you’d like to upgrade to First Class. The picture that accompanies that message is of the new, international premium cabins, even if your trip is domestic (and thus would never include such a seat, even after the entire fleet’s done). There’s a small clarification that the seat depicted comes from a 747, but unless you’re super-savvy about airplane types, etc., that’s easily missed. I’m fine with trying to enhance revenue by offering an upgrade, but why not build the website to show a picture of the seat you’d actually be purchasing?

  5. Are there anny of the older UA planes still around with ‘Shuttle’ and ‘Ted’ still written on them?

    Almost sounds like the 747’s will vanish one day if they are not making them over like the 777’s or other planes.

    1. All Shuttle by United and Ted planes have been repainted. Besides, the Shuttle was operated with 737s, and UA retired its entire fleet of 737.

      1. Those Airbus leather seats aren’t the slimline seats. Those got installed on one 757. Those Airbus seats are leather though…

  6. Add to United’s poor brand management (and the “new” United’s challenge) gate-area signage. It is ALL over the place: DEN still has the old logo (but just got the new flight information monitors), ORD is a mix (better consistency in B & C concourses, but a mess in E & F); IAD is a pit generally and a complete signage mix (including, at the very end of the D concourse, a United sign from the 1970s).

    I do hope the “new” United will keep the gate information monitors that have been installed at ORD, DEN, IAD, etc. They are fantastic. I love them as a customer, and I imagine gate agents love how they have reduced people coming up to simply ask where they are on the upgrade list, the standby list, etc. I noticed that CO is using them (in their own designs) at the ORD gates near the end of the B concourse and in a few places at EWR. I don’t care whether the CO design of the UA design is used graphically, but I hope to see these rolled out in more airports.

  7. Not too concerned about VOD. I have had video on demand, games, and music on every flight I have been on since July 2010, including United Express. It’s called an iPad.
    Personally, I think VOD was a big deal in 2005. Now it’s inflight WiFi. I’m actually glad UA did not go whole hog into VOD when it’ll sit unused in two years when wifi and tablets will be the primary means of inflight entertainment.

    1. @Matt — exactly. I’ve been carrying on my own IFE for six+ years. Originally a 4.5″ hard-disk-based personal media player with ripped DVDs and TiVo recordings, and since April my iPad. I mostly care about space, since that’s something I cannot carry on myself, and E+ serves me well in that regard. Frankly, I’d rather have no on-board IFE if it means a equipment box under the seat in front of me taking up precious space.

    2. Different topic – but I agree 100%.

      I’ll take powerports to keep my Macbook running on a long flight and WiFi versus a fancy IFE with content edited movies.

    3. I don’t know how long you can count on wi-fi if the flight attendants union gets their way and has it banned as a ‘terrorist threat.’ As for IFE, I’ve had the same IFE since I started flying… a paperback book. The newest models even have pictures sometimes :-)

  8. I feel I got conned into trying CO after post after post on here over the past few years. How wonderful Continental were; I was indeed conned. They are not all that at all – late, sh1te food, sh1te seats – and I agree, VOD is by no means a requirement anymore. For someone who flies the vast majority of their time in cattle class on UA, CO have been a depressing experience.

    So, I know I’m in the minority on this blog, but I’ll be hoping that CO keeps its sh1te stuff to itself!

    1. From what I’ve heard, I agree. But IAH has plenty of room, so unlike O’Hare it’s not congested per se.

      But still, you gotta give it up to Southwest for turning uncongested places like BNA and MCI/STL into decent hubs and keeping those places uncongested.

    2. Completely disagree with you on the Houston hub comment. IAH (specifically Terminal E) is one of the best domestic terminals and the Continental lounge is very nice with free wifi and free drinks.

  9. I have flown United several times and I never noticed the different liveries until this article pointed them out. Other than a few extremely observant people, I don’t think anyone really noticed. The new United will have more important things to do than repaint planes. They should just repaint them on the normal cycle rather than rushing into it, which will cost extra money.

    1. Continental under Bethune repainted them for employee morale, which ultimately does affect customers.

      If you continually have people saying “I worked an old Continental 737, or I worked an old United A319, it starts wearing on people that they’re not part of the same airline.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the new United has a push to repaint the old United birds into the Continental/United Scheme, and the get the United titles on Continental birds. The sooner it looks like one airline, the sooner the employees start thinking of it as one.

  10. Brett – good post. In the end I agree that to the average non-aviation geek paint colors don’t matter much. However cabin mods matter more, and even semi-frequent travelers notice these changes. I’m not sure how it changes their buying behavior or price elasticity, but it is noticed.

    In Gordon’s “Worst to First” book he talks about getting all of the planes painted. It was a result that was viewed as not possible in the timeframe he demanded, but it happened (the few that were not painted by the deadline were hidden at outstations from Gordon until they got the new livery!).

    The big take away I get is more around an airline being able to implement changes and deliver on its commitments. UA seems to not have the execution dicipline that CO does. That is a huge strength for CO that I hope they retain post-merger. In an industry and world that is rapidly changing the ability to remain agile and implement future changes is critical to remaining a going concern.

    I generally view UA as having weak operations capability (both daily flight ops and capex improvements), but having strong marketing, product (hard/soft), loyalty program, and pricing. CO is a much less sexy airline (and less complex), that will benefit from more sophisticated UA marketing/product capability, but overall runs a better operation, in the essence of that word. #morethantwocents

      1. Yes they have improved. But I wouldn’t look at a DOT mandaded measure as a measure of operational exellence. Arrival+15 isn’t a very great measure anyway. Plus does not take into account regionals flying under UA brand, which from a customer experience is all part of the same airline experience.

  11. Bottom Line: United model has been broken for years, even Greyhound now
    has Wifi on There BUSES ! The only airlines I see that are the best are
    the SkyTrax top 10, not one American Airline makes that list…

    1. Did you overlook that CO doesn’t have a single plane with WiFi?

      Given the low uptake rate of in-flight WiFi that’s been reported, and considering the financial performance of UA/CO in comparison to their WiFi-equipped peers in the last few years, I don’t think it’s been a bad decision to defer the WiFi installation and let the other guys test it out first.

      I have used WiFi exactly once (in the post Connexion-by-Boeing era), on VX flying from LAS to SFO, and the system was so crappy that I (and others) didn’t even get a connection until we were somewhere over Sacramento, and a few minutes later it was time to shut down the electronic devices. A whole lot of good did that free WiFi do us…

  12. Def agree, the sooner the planes look the same, the better.
    Delta has done a very quick take on it, it’s important for branding.
    As to the interiors……..I flew ATL FLL on a fresh looking 757, but the interior was destroyed….

    As for the old UA colors, they look horrible now, was surprised to see so many at DIA
    I’m not crazy about the new / final UA.
    Hate the proposed merger scheme.

    1. > Delta has done a very quick take on it, it’s important for branding.

      And yet Delta isn’t done yet. There are still aircraft with the old Delta livery out there and as of this summer at least I still saw NWA livery aircraft at MSP.

      1. used to have a really nice chart of the airplanes and their status. The best I’ve been able to find is which shows that with the exception of some DC9s that are going to be retired the whole fleet is in Delta colors, and most of them are in the new colors. Oddly though there is at least one 767 in the new livery that is being stored…

  13. Well, since you wouldn’t look at Arrival +14 then perhaps you could consider another arbitrary method. At this rate, any method would do until we define operational excellence with actual metrics. Now, UA did take inspiration from CO’s playbook and learned a lot during the first round of merger talks and subsequent Star Alliance discussions and decided to do even better. Sounds good to me.

  14. 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.

    they were in bankruptcy in 2004. Trying to keep the doors open. Hardly a priority for the company to spend thousands of dollars PER AIRCRAFT. And, look at the last 7 years, huge losses and an on-going recession. They did, however, spend MILLIONS on interior upgrades to remain competitive:

  15. Flew into Newark Wednesday and I was surprised how many Continental jets were already painted over to United. Of course, all they had to repaint was a few letters, so it’s a fairly easy job. FWIW, I arrived on United in an Airbus with the most recent paint-job and leather seats, after a connecting flight on a battleship-grey Airbus with very worn out cloth seats.

  16. United is notoriously SLOW in repainting their planes. I was surprised that Delta repainted all the Northwest aircraft so quickly. Hopefully, the merger will speed things up a bit.

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