The fact that United had a media day at all should tell you something. In the more than 13 years I’ve been writing about the industry, I don’t recall United ever having one. That’s probably because the airline didn’t have much to show off, but even if it did, the penny-pinching company likely wouldn’t have been willing to pay for it. But this is not your father’s (or your Uncle Tilton’s) airline. Things have changed markedly since CEO Oscar Munoz took the reins and brought in Scott Kirby as President. The airline flew in people from more than 100 media outlets from around the world to talk about its plans. For the first time in ages, it had quite a story to tell.
[Disclosure: United paid for my flights and hotel]
When we were brought into an unmarked warehouse in an industrial neighborhood area southwest of the loop, I began to wonder just what the airline was thinking. It turns out this warehouse was the perfect venue. Inside is where United has been running its “Backstage” program which brings every flight attendant in from around the world to dole out the company Kool-Aid. That may sound like a negative comment, but in this case, it’s not. In the past, United had no Kool-Aid to give. Now that it does, it needs to make sure all employees get a sip. (The program has been so well-received that customer service agents will participate next year.)
When we all arrived on Thursday, our only event was a three hour, off-the-record cocktail party in a big showcase area. Ringing the room were stations showing all the things United has been rolling out. They had live demonstrations of onboard tech including flight attendant tablets, pilot electronic flight bags, and customer tools. There were Polaris seats to try as well as new lounge furniture. And of course, food and drink both from the airplane and from the lounge were passed around.
While this alone made it worthwhile, it was nothing compared to the people who were there to talk to us. Those who led individual projects were showing off their work while execs mingled. I spent time with Oscar, Scott, Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella, SVP Sales Jake Cefolia, United’s President of California, Janet Lamkin, and more. United had also invited front-line employees, including many with strong social media presences, to come and participate. This was no stuffy, scripted event, and there were no guards up. It just felt like an airline full of people that were finally, mercifully working together to do good things. And when you do good things, you want to talk about it. As someone who worked for a bankrupt United 15 years ago, I can only say that it’s about time.
The next day’s main event reinforced that feeling. United had saved up a slew of announcements to be rolled out every time a new exec came up to present. You can read my Twitter feed or follow #UnitedFlightPlan, but here’s a summary of what I have in my notes as being announced.
- Big push toward being eco-friendly with a $40 million investment fund to support new fuel development
- “Soft Landing” which pushes hotel options to stranded customers in the app, so they can choose from options and not wait in line
- “Seat View” on the website shows a 3D tour of the cabin so you can pick your seat from an actual view (no more surprise window seats with no windows) – on the CRJ-550 now with other aircraft to follow shortly
- Adding navigation to airport maps so you can get turn-by-turn directions on a connection if you enable location services on your phone
- Partnering with Apple to look at airport redesigns (maybe, possibly) starting with San Francisco, of course
- Luggage delivery for Polaris passengers flying Newark to London and staying at one of 5 Marriott properties – additional growth is planned for this tie-in with Marriott
- MileagePlus members get free access to Timeshifter app to help combat jetlag
- “Miles on a Mission” allows members to set up mileage crowdfunding campaigns which United will feature on the website to encourage donations from other members
- Redo the interiors of the Embraer 145 fleet (including the lav, whew)
- Install bigger bins on most of the fleet (80% done by 2023, so it’s not fast)
- When airplanes get new bins, they will get nose-to-tail power outlets if they don’t have them already
- In domestic First Class, travelers will be able to choose from at least 5 meals online up to 24 hours before departure – data will be analyzed to make sure United keeps the meals people like and ditches the ones they don’t
- By October 2020, 90% of the international fleet will have Polaris seats onboard
- Add a 6th Newark-London flight (using a Lufthansa slot) and make departures go hourly on the hour from 6p to 10p
- Turning Newark-Washington/National into a shuttle operation with hourly departures (no change to branding or onboard experience except that it will all now be on 2-class airplanes, no more Embraer 145s)
- 787s will start flying from Chicago to Asia next spring, Chicago also gets Santa Barbara, Pasco, and Vail service plus there will be domestic 777s on Orlando flights (also from Newark) in the spring
- Denver will see huge growth next summer with about 550 daily departures (up from under 500) – spring will also see new Saturday-only Nassau service
- Start to push the Star Wars tie-in with the introduction of a new safety video and amenity kits
- Houston will get CLEAR at all terminals and a new nonstop service to Spokane
Quite the laundry list, isn’t it? You might care about some of these while others might be useless to you, but that’s not really the point. I was struck more by the big picture view.
For many years, United was an airline that prided itself in figuring out how it could cut costs and cut service. It had no qualms about generally making flying unpleasant if it would save a buck. There was no forward-looking strategy, or if there was, it wasn’t good. That is not the United that I saw at media day.
What I saw was an airline with every department — at least the ones that presented — actively working to improve the airline, even in small doses. There appears to be an effort to fill the pipeline with ideas and then push them out rapidly. This kind of thing would make Jake Brace physically ill… and others too. Right now, times are good. Airlines generally open their wallets now, only to regret it when the next downturn hits. But today’s United says this is different.
When I asked Scott, he responded with the same mantra I heard throughout the event: “It’s just math.” United crows that it has the best network. It says 75 percent of US business travel starts or finishes at one of its hubs, and United is an airline for the business traveler. It needs more premium seats for the markets it serves. Scott continued that the low-density 767-300 (read: lots of business class seats) and the CRJ-550 will work, and while they might not work as well when times are bad, it’s still the right thing for United in the long run. United isn’t making short-term plans.
Anyone who knows Scott knows that when he says something this confidently, it’s hard not to believe him. His math brain works on a different level than just about anyone else. Certainly the people of United as well as customers want to believe him. We won’t know for sure until we see what happens when that next downturn comes (quite likely sooner than later the way things are going). For now, however, this is an airline on a mission. The old “United Rising” campaign may be long dead and buried, but for the first time, it would actually be accurate. I never thought I’d see the day. Now we just have to hope that it continues when times get tough.