q Topic of the Week: How Do You Feel About United Now? – Cranky Flier

Topic of the Week: How Do You Feel About United Now?


It has been a content-heavy week with my four-part series on my visit with United Airlines. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Now, I’ll shift the spotlight on you. Did you learn anything worthwhile from this series? Does it make you think better or worse about United? Separately, do you like this kind of series? Should I continue to try to do these?

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41 comments on “Topic of the Week: How Do You Feel About United Now?

  1. I’m not sure ‘better’ is necessarily the right word to describe my thoughts on United after this week – more a case that it explains a lot better what they’re trying to do and how they want to get there. Perhaps greater respect might be a better descriptor.

    As PR departments in large corporates are usually so wary about the message given out to journalists with little knowledge of the area and really want to avoid what they say being mangled into some misunderstood populist headline, this is probably a very good way for an airline to talk about what they want to do, and how it’ll affect the customer experience in a way that still remains accessible to the customer as opposed to just the lates quarter financials in an equity analysts briefing.

    Definitely worthwhile you’re continuing to do these, but don’t kill yourself over doing them – I know that this probably messes up your business and family life as well.
    Would maybe one of these every 3 or 4 months be a possibility ?

    1. David – More likely a couple times a year would be possible, but it all depends on which airlines are willing to give me access. I’ve had open invitations from Delta for some time. I haven’t been back there for a few years, so I’ll need to try and make that happen in 2014.

      1. Don’t feel you have to limit yourself to just the other 3 major airlines in the USA. An airport or a carrier based outside the 48 states could be very interesting as well. Perhaps even the FAA (eg ATC), DOT or a large air catering company ?

        1. David – Absolutely, just like the Korean series last June. I have at least one airline outside the US that I think would be a great candidate for this year. Always taking suggestions as well!

  2. First off – I definitely appreciate the work and effort that goes into this very informative series. I agree with David – don’t kill yourself to do it…as the “Old adage” goes “If it Don’t make dollars, it Don’t make Sense”.
    In regards to my opinion of UA…being a Houstonian…it does explain a lot. The whole Smisek sucks/UA screwed Houston/UA service decline rant has gotten old and I personally have gotten use to the new standard, albeit lower standard, that is UA. I actually regard them solely as transportation and have no higher expectations of them than say a US Airways/AA/DL. I hold WN in much higher regard nowadays.

  3. I know the marketing focus is for the highest paying travelers, but what about the business traveler who is always in coach, which is a majority of their frequent fliers; unless you get the free upgrade, in which case United is not really making as much of a premium from your ticket. I think the emphasis on all of the bells, whistles and options in first and business will only lead to letdowns for the Y,B,M,Q crowd. It’s great to have the lie-flat with the entertainment system and all of the “special” services, but if I am in coach with maybe wifi, maybe not, narrower seating (you know the 777’s will go 3-4-3 at some point), being edged out on frequent flier redemption by non-fliers, etc, the friendly skies may not seem so friendly or even user friendly anymore.

    1. That’s not isolated to United; the reality is the days of people getting upgraded to first are gone not so much because of stinginess on the part of airlines, but a intense focus on filling those seats with paying customers. If it’s between upgrading someone and getting paid a premium fare, the airlines are always going to zero in on the premium fare. I don’t view that as an unreasonable expectation. If you expect a premium seat then you need to pay for one.

      1. I personally never expect an upgrade, all I’m trying to say is that the vast majority if the mareting focus is not necessarily with the majority if not a large amount of the revenue. Business fliers in coach are profitable for the airlines, but are in for a dissapointment. It’s kind of like seeing pitches for baseball skyboxes in the publicly funded stadium and then paying $100 for outfield bleacher seats (a bit of an exaggeratio, but not by much).

        1. Honestly it doesn’t change my flying habits, which despite being newly arrived to the mid-west, my destinations are still entirely in the southeast, leading me overwhelmingly to Delta time and time again. More importantly, across the board Delta is killing United on alot of flights from MKE price-wise despite having a significantly nearer hub in the form of O’Hare. That shouldn’t be the case honestly. When another legacy is beating you by a hundred or more dollars on a variety of flights, you have something wrong going on, and you can’t use the excuse of labor rates.

          1. Remember, one of the halmarks of a strong hub for a carrier is somewhere where they can be a high price leader. They’re getting the fare they want and that the market can bear specifically because they’ve got a hub which allows so many to fly nonstop at so many different times of day.

      2. As a United 1K for the past 9 years with over 1.2M miles I am left wondering what the value proposition for my sticking with United is even though I hit 1K for 2014 already. My conclusion, given the erosion of benefits, poor operational performance and belief that United just doesn’t appreciate my business, since the Continental takeover is that I will fly United when it make sense i.e. they have the cheapest fare and the most convenient flight. As a million miler I am PE for life which gets me in the same boarding group as credit card holders and Global Entry gets me PreCheck which gives me flexibility in airline selection. As a Seattle resident, AA or AS make more sense to me than United now that my travel decisions will be more rational due to erosion of United benefits. No more connecting through United hub when AS or AA has a direct flight.

        I switched about 20% of my travel to AA/AS this year but am considering switching most and taking AA challenge. Perhaps the press about AA treating their high tier elites so much better is true and AA will do a better job than United in integrating AA and US. Either way, If not, I will get more convenient and cheaper flights by spreading my business and I win.

        1. I loved your comment, because by an only slightly different path, I have come to the same conclusion. Last year, I flew 168,000 miles, all of it earned from flights (no credit cards or promotions), a large majority of it in paid first or businessfirst fares. United refused to give me 1K status the first year of the merger (though I had flown over 100,000 miles on CO and therefore was eligible for it) because, “It is already November and so you will just have to wait to try to get it next year.” I have 1.7 million miles, but am single so it is of no importance to me and certainly not to UA.

          IK for all the years since the merger, but I am never offered Global Services, even though I fly 95% of the time from MEX and on routes not heavily traveled by Global Services members (PTY, IQT, LIM, EZE, SAP). I did not get a single upgrade for the year, because I always bought either a premium fare or an automatically upgradable one (B, M, Y), though in the last month of the year I was able to apply two GPU’s for a round-trip to Australia.

          So I have finally come to the same opinion or ethic as GetMeOffThisDamnedPlane: I will use UA when they have the best fare, as I can see no value in sticking with them, at least in regards to meeting mileage caps of at least 100,000 miles a year. AA has service to most destinations I use from MEX and the status challenge may make sense, since I, too, have read that they treat their elites somewhat better than UA.

          Have to mention one last sneaky change to save money. The last flight from anywhere back to MEX via IAH used to leave about 9:05 p.m., with a lovely hot meal. Last week I returned in First/BusinessFirst from MSY on that same flight, but the scheduled time had been changed to 8:59 p.m. I thought nothing of it until on the plane the attendant offered, for dinner, a banana or bag of chips. I asked if there were not any dinner to be served, and she replied, “Oh, no, we never serve dinner for (international) flights that leave after 9 p.m.” Hey….I get it…change the flight deparature to 9:07 p.m. so as not to give the 8 people in BusinessFirst a meal. I found it a very telling exchange on all fronts.

          So, in the new year, since I usually pay for business fares anyway, I probably will be better off just thinking of my comfort and going with whatever airlines offers the most for the price, and just disregarding UA’s “loyalty” program.

          1. Just a CORRECTION: the IAH-MEX flight had been changed FROM the usual 8:59 p.m. TO 9:05 p.m., likely to avoid having to serve dinner.
            Sorry for the error!

  4. It was an interesting series. Like I said yesterday I haven’t flown UA in years so it really has little impact on me personally. That said, I’d love for you to do a series on DL and AA so we could compare apples to apples.

    1. A – Just mentioned above that I have an open invite from Delta to go out for a visit. I’ll have to work that into the 2014 schedule. As for AA, I think it’s a little turbulent with the transition right now, but I’d hope that I’ll get the chance. At the very least, I’d bet we’ll have media day there in 2014, continuing the US tradition.

  5. Your series points out the many difficulties involved in running an airline. Add the difficulties involved in integrating two carriers along with the normal tasks involved in day-to-day operations can be daunting.

    The comments to your stories show that some (not all) airline passengers and observers appear to think that the integration of service standards, fleets, products, etc. between merger partners should be accomplished in the blink of an eye, needing no expenditure of time or money.

    Even the best of companies run into problems when integrating with another. The Union Pacific Railroad’s merger with the Southern Pacific (its last big combination) was riddled with major problems two years after its closing. So to expect perfection right off the bat is unrealistic. Even Delta had issues.

    United is probably at the point where most of its major integration challenges are behind it. Even so, the replacement and refurbishment of older aircraft and the continuing implementation of more uniform service standards is going to take both time and money to accomplish. You simply can’t retrofit hundreds of aircraft or completely merge cultures overnight.

    1. I don’t think most knowledgeable spectators disagree that merger integrations are difficult and take time. The main complaint I’ve been seeing is that UA/CO dug themselves into their own hole by overpromising and underdelivering. The only thing you really ever heard from UA corporate was how awesome the merger was going to be, and how it was going to provide great benefits to both UA and CO fliers. Then, you end up with a systems integration gone awry, product downgrades, a devalued Mileage Plus program, etc., while the execs walk away with big bonuses. Basically, they fed right in to all of the negative stereotypes of corporate mergers.

      Basically, the problem, and this is not isolated to UA or other airline mergers, is that Corporate America does a p*ss poor job of setting realistic expectations and communicating to the public about not only the benefits of business combinations, but being honest about the difficulties and teething problems that are inevitable while you work through a combination of often disparate corporate cultures.

  6. Does this change my opinion of UA and/or make me want to run out and change my allegiance? No, but your series did provide a good deal of useful insight as to why the combined airline faces the challenges that it does, and at least paints a “method to the madness”. I’m not fully on board that the chosen method or the madness is the best way forward, but as David says, I can respect the business decisions, even if I personally disagree with them.

    I’d definitely enjoy reading more of these series, BTW, but as others have noted, don’t kill yourself to put these together. A couple or three times a year would satiate my appetite!

  7. An airline is an airline, they will always have issues and always have people talking the talk about how great they are and how great things will be. They can have all the newest aircraft with all the wow features onboard, but they will still have the same crabby tired workers on the flights which can make even the greatest features a let down.

    Passengers don’t get off an airplane and tell their family and friends about the nice seat or having wifi, but about the horrid F/A(s) they had.

    Airlines need to learn to treat each passenger the same, only the service in each cabin should be different not the basic human way to treat each person. The $100 passenger is just as importat as the $1000.00 passenger who’s just as important as the $10,000.00 passenger.

    Airlines need to remember unhappy passengers spread the word faster then happy passengers about their airline.

  8. Very informative, as it’s nice to get some insight – even if it is somewhat sanitized. I can appreciate the complexity of running a large airlines like United, but the ad campaign and those you’ve interviewed only proved that there is a disconnect between management and what’s happening on the front line.
    Any brand expert would tell you that one of the most important things to the consumer is consistency. It’s what branding is all about. United is all over the board. Just read trip reports or Skytrax surveys. Sometimes the customer experience is outstanding, and sometimes it’s terrible. Naturally, some people’s expectations exceed what is promised, which in turn leads to disappointment. While the “Friendly” campaign is catchy, I think the marketing folks forgot that a majority of the success of the campaign rests with and is implemented by those who come into contact with the customer. They are the foundation to its success, and I don’t think relations with these employees are particularly good right now.
    Although everyone can have a bad day now and then, when I fly they seem to be few and far between on Virgin America, Alaska and JetBlue. It’s consistently a positive experience. United, if anything, is “inconsistent-friendly”.

  9. Please, I beg you to continue to take on issues YOU enjoy dealing with and YOU enjoy writing about. You take on very diverese issues, with passion, and have demonstrated your willingness to listen to our sometimes nutty ideas. If we don’t like something, even grammar and spelling, we’ll let you know. You have a good thing going here. Don’t overthink it or lose any sleep over what we might not like. (At least until my next rant!)

    On the matter of UA, as you can probably tell, we all have our opinions about how the airline should be run and how it should treat its customers. Gosh, what we see as so obvious seems so hard for UA to understand. Of course, I kid!

    As with any company dealing with customers, I just hope UA remembers that each of us is a unique traveler trying to get the best service at the least cost. Most of us, I suppose, want to be good customers and want to be able to deal openly and honestly with real, live human UA employees. Too often, we can’t talk to a real live human to resolve our disputes, disputes we think are big deals, but for which UA may not. Please don’t lose the human touch, Be “user-friendly!” Remind yourself of the Golden Rule at least once a day, while “Rhapsody” is playing there in the background.

    1. JayB – The problem I have is that there is far more out there that interests me than I have time to write about. So it makes sense for me to figure out what you all want to read about. I love doing this stuff, but I don’t love being away from home and then having an avalanche of work to do after gathering a full day of notes (pages and pages and pages). So it’s a tradeoff. But if people chimed in and said they didn’t find it that interesting, then I might not put as much effort into doing these things.

  10. Hi,
    I think you should definitely continue pursuing detailed series on the various approaches of large carriers. In terms of United, I would not take a word they say at face-value, as in the past three years, United has been the only airline to consistently deliver a declining level of service across all classes of service. I fly United(Continental Before) via Newark to Europe and Asia, sometimes flying Businessfirst, sometime Economy, pre-merger Continental service, food, and overall experience was far superior, but what should really concern United is that their FA’s are still separate, their aircraft are falling apart, and why transition from Continental’s superior food service especially flying from international destinations….

    Each time I have flown United in the past two years, I question my decision, and just hope the next experience will be better, but recently(this past week), I have decided to burn my miles and get out, because United really crossed the line in terms of quality, service, and just absolute lack of respect for any customer. I will not describe the experience, except to say that it was an international itinerary via EWR, on a single aisle 757, which should never be used for flights over 7 hours. Emergency landing, every bathroom non-functional after 7 hours, bad food, and no sincere apology from United.

    They obviously have lofty goals, but I cannot see them accomplishing this in the near future

    1. Dude. You must be deluded. CO was the only airline that was flying 757s transatlantic. UA never did.

      1. No delusion, I consciously chose to fly via EWR to get Continental, and not United Aircraft and crew. I have, however, flown several flights, IAD-FRA, IAD-PEK, that were United aircraft, and the service was in comparison to CO below par, and has not improved since the merger.

        Do note, that it has been three years since the merger, if United management had serious intentions on improving their service, they would cease using single aisle aircraft on international flights.

        I loved Continental pre-merger as I
        1) Do not sleep on international flights so having in-seat on-demand entertainment which CO had five + years before United was awesome, especially on transpacific flights, and considering the difference in flying time, i consider transatlantic flights a joke in terms of flight time, comfort, etc
        2) Usually bring my own food on-board when flying economy, not business. Business-class food quality on EWR-PEK declined immensely once food catering services at international destinations moved to pre-merger United food services(not at flights departing from EWR/IAH), you could still get relatively reliable food when departing EWR, but that has declined in the past year. IAD-FRA food was horrific, in “businessfirst/pre-merger United Business) on a 777.

        My complaints are not addressed at either UA/CO aspects, but at the management for not acknowledging mistakes when they make them, and consciously going out of their way to not give a …. when something does happen. I will give pre-merger United some credit, at least they had a system in place for taking care of all customers in the event of an emergency or problem, whereas CO would only do that for biz customers(and they provided good service)

  11. I thought it was a very interesting piece and much appreciated.

    I have to echo a few others and say as a long time United flyer at 1.8 million miles I’ve been high on the mountain and into the lows of the desert! I did the AA challenge two years ago and after 6 months of flying came back to UA. They did a lot of things I really liked…the free drink for elites in coach was amazing and have to confess they earned my loyalty with a beer! In the end, the flight schedules were just too difficult and had to come back to UA. I guess I’m just numb to what United has become and have hopes that saner minds will eventually prevail.

    One thing I always wondered was do UA management ever fly their product without anyone knowing they are UA management? Have they ever sat next to a window in row 34 for 5 hours? One thing I had to do before I managed my team of road warriors was to spend a week with them, traveling like them and managing my life exactly like they did. By day three I had realized they were nickeled and dimed to death and were not really making as much side cash as I had thought. The free hotel breakfast I was paying for wasn’t being pocketed, but was used to buy that overpriced burger at the airport that I was underpaying. It was a huge wake up call for me and realized the road wasn’t glamorous and a huge cash cow.

    I ask because I occasionally interact with a VP and was discussing the latest changes with MileagePlus and had no idea how it worked, benefits, etc. I was just surprised that something that touched the majority of their customers was so foreign.

  12. I just discovered your blog today and really enjoy reading it. I would like to see more coverage like you did on your series of reports on United, as it was very informative. I also like how you disclose any items which are compensated to you by a company and the blog’s code of ethics. Please keep up the good work of spreading information to the miles and points community.

  13. Thanks for all the feedback, everyone. These kinds of pieces can be challenging to put together, but in general I think they’re worth doing at least a couple times a year if the opportunity presents itself. In my opinion, there was plenty of interesting information to be had about how United thinks about its business.

    Despite the usual FlyerTalk armchair quarterback assertion that this is merely a puff piece (nothing ever pleases them), that’s far from the case. As I mentioned several times, I disagree with how United views certain things, and that made for a great debate. It was good to have people willing to engage in some back and forth, though it isn’t easy to convey that very well in a written post. Of course, they won’t be entirely open with me if for no other reason because there’s a PR person sitting in each interview. But in general, I thought people were fairly candid considering everything.

    In the end, I do find these really fascinating and they help shape my future writings about the airline. It gives me more context to consider future decisions made by the airline, and that’s probably the most valuable. So I’ll plan on continuing to do these.

  14. Interesting article set. As an irregular United flyer it didnt really have any influence on my opinions of United. I did a few domestic sectors with United this year (along with a couple of other airlines) and I thought they stacked up pretty well. However, internationally they can only compete on price. Very tired product and disinterested staff.
    The good thing about the articles is that there may be a ‘Continental’ influence on the airline management. If so I will at least keep an eye on what they are doing.

  15. It was an interesting read since United is my primary carrier (19 RTs in 2013). Most of my travel involves at least one segment on one of their regional partners through Chicago, Denver or Houston. It’s not ideal, but usually there’s no alternative. The quality of the product from the mainline to the regional is noticeably less and this is bad for their brand perception.

    You mentioned the mobile app in passing and there would be something new in 2014 on Android. The current app violates many of the Android design and runtime principles. I would hope they toss out the entire code base and start from scratch. I really don’t need a Sudoku puzzle. Let me pull up reservations, get into the United Club, check in for flight, and look at terminal maps. If the feature isn’t directly related to their product offering, then it doesn’t need to be in their app (e.g. currency conversion).

    Keep up the good work!

    1. I am a long time, 1.2M UAL flyer, and I want to thank AirlineEmployee. I am sadly disappointed with the current level of service, particularly at EWR and on CO planes.

      UAL ‘was’ great, but now, I’m just glad I made my million miles and have the freedom to fly other carriers.

      I don’t travel as much anymore and am thankful, especially with the current level of service, the lack of upgrades, and the decline in miles awarded.

  16. I’m late to the party here, but as a longtime UA flyer (and sometime CO flyer as well as other airlines) I have several observations and concerns, and wonder if you addressed any of them.

    UA has taken quite a few steps in the past year that alienate their elites. They seem to think that the Flyertalk/Milepoint crowd does not intersect with their high value flyers. But many people who spend a lot of time traveling do also make the effort to optimize that travel, and sources like Flyertalk and Milepoint help. Is there a strategy to try to drive away low yield elites? They seem to be devaluing the experience for high yield elites just as much.

    Next point – there seems to be all manner of focus on costs, reducing costs. Meal service has degraded. Coffee is terrible. No pillows. Amenities removed from clubs. Many flights on RJs. It’s a long list. I don’t see any effort being put on the revenue side of the equation. And I don’t mean cutting capacity so that revenue management can reduce low fare buckets. I mean attracting people willing to pay a premium to fly on UA. In Asia, NW had a poor reputation and UA was always able to get a revenue premium. DL seems to be inverting that. What is UA doing to make people want to fly them, even if the fare is higher? Or have they simply given up?

    There is a somewhat strange make vs. buy bias at UA. I cite the transition to SHARES and the decision to go it alone on their Wifi implementation. The SHARES decision was justified both by not having to pay licensing fees and by being able to customize the offerings to revenue manage things like Economy Plus. Nevertheless it is clear that it has been a terribly expensive decision in terms of all the turmoil it has caused, and many operations seem more labor intensive for UA staff. In this day and age, does it make sense for UA to take on development of its reservation system vs. buying it from a vendor responsible for maintenance and enhancements? Similarly UA is quite late on Wifi. I’ll say the jury is still out, but in my attempts to use it I have been disappointed by the performance. Will this turn out to be another mistake?

    Last thing. I feel something is rotten in the culture at UA. I don’t feel that top management listens very well – not to customers nor to employees. I don’t feel that they are honest enough. After the horrid coffee we get pronouncements that it won taste tests. With the recent elimination of the ability to book SQ awards, we hear from UA it was a joint decision, while SQ says it was UA’s doing. I don’t feel they are acting forthrightly and with integrity. Did you get any feel for this?

    I’m still a UA flyer, and I hope they figure out how to fix what ails at this airline, but I like BOTH pmUA and pmCO better than this amorphous mess we have today.

    1. Carl – We discussed the elite question at length in Part 1.

      We talked about how United views on the onboard product in a couple of places, so just browse through.

      Regarding culture, it’s hard to get a sense of that by spending one day at a place. As for Singapore, I’m pretty confident that this was just the usual difficult Singapore/partner airline relationship spilling over and impacting customers.

      On Bangkok, I don’t believe this was a cavalier decision. It’s clearly a route that didn’t work and hadn’t worked for some time, I’m guessing.

  17. PS: I think it is a major mistake to delete as important a destination as BKK from the route system so cavalierly. It’s a major hub and destination in its own right, in a growing market, and has been part of the system since the day they bought the PA Asian routes, and it’s not the same to get deposited in a coach seat on NH for a 6 hour flight from NRT. Seems really short-sighted to drop it vs. putting a 787 to work.

  18. To make these interviews worthwhile to your readers, I think you have to ask much tougher questions and follow-ups. Right now, you’re being used by their PR Depts. If you just want to go schmooze w/ the airlines don’t bother it’s no use to us . . .

    1. Bill – Clearly based on other responses, you can’t speak for everyone. So feel free to say it’s no use to “you” but that’s about it.

      This is not my “across the aisle” format so you really can’t know what I asked and how the conversations went. There were plenty of tough questions asked and a lot of disagreement, but there’s no reason to include it all if there’s no interesting information that comes from it.

      The reality is this. If an airline invites you in to meet with people, it is going to be an orchestrated PR event. Some airlines go further than others. With United, each person I interviewed had obviously been briefed, and there was a PR person sitting in the room during every meeting. I try to get the best information I can from people realizing that there’s no way I’m going to get someone to say something that the PR department wouldn’t ok.

      You (and several angry Flyertalkers) seem to think the right way to do it is to go in there, be a hard ass, and then answers will magically start flowing. That’s not going to happen in that setting. And even when I do ask tougher questions (always in a thoughtful way and not like a confrontational asshole), there’s no reason to include them in my write-up if the answers aren’t helpful. The only reason to include that kind of back-and-forth word for word would be to make it look like I was sticking it to the man. I have no interest in that kind of show. I’m interested in good information.

      What I really like to get from these kind of meetings is a window into the way airlines think about their business. That involves less confrontation and more of a discussion. I think I got a better sense of how United looks at the world, and I know others find that interesting as well. If you don’t, then you are more than welcome to skip these posts. Nothing is forcing you to read them.

  19. Although I no longer work in the travel industry, I used to be a retail and then corporate travel consultant where I live in Auckland, New Zealand. Nowadays, I use my knowledge to book flights for my family members and friends, using airline websites. You ask me what I think of United? Well, I’ve recently booked flights for my niece SYD-X/LAX-JFK rtn on UA on economy class. I was stunned to see that United still doesn’t have personal TVs on the long 14 hour flights across the Pacific Ocean between Australia and the USA. That’s years behind the times as far as I am concerned. We ended up booking UA because they were substantially cheaper than QF, DL, VA or NZ, but for goodness sake – enter the 21st century, United.

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