In late September United Airlines brought back an old advertising campaign – “fly the friendly skies” – with a new twist. The campaign was first launched in the 60s and was brought back because the company felt they have finally turned the corner on their merger challenges and they can finally get back to focusing on customer satisfaction.
In a NYTimes story about the new(ish) campaign there were lots of happy quotes:
Tom O’Toole, United’s senior vice president for marketing and loyalty, said United had opted to return to the Burnett tagline because it wanted to “re-establish United’s position as the world’s leading” customer-focused airline.
…“The real aim” of the new advertising, Mr. O’Toole said, is to “say to customers, co-workers and competitors that United is back in the game in a big way.”
So, how are they doing?
Maybe 3.5 months is not enough time to really get a feel for the impact of an ad campaign. And many of the things the company was focusing on in their “friendly” campaign were projects already completed or close to it. But there have been a number of changes in the past several weeks and, well, not all of them are so customer-friendly.
Want a lighter seat on board? United is happy to help with that. The plans to install slim-line seats on the Airbus fleet were announced before the new campaign launched but news about the similar slim-line seats on the 737s came after “Friendly” returned. Are these more or less comfortable? I suppose that depends on your point of view. But there are very few customers across any airline who seem excited by these seats showing up on board. Storage space is reduced to increase knee room: win some, lose some. Padding is reduced and the arm rests are lower/shorter. That is mostly a losing scenario for passengers. On the plus side, more seats fit on the planes in the same space so I suppose you can make more friends when on board.
And what about the food & beverage options in-flight? Well, starting this month United has cut the last market (trans-Pacific) where complimentary beer & wine was being offered in economy class. And, while the revised buy-on-board meals for economy class have some pretty decent fresh food offerings the packaged stuff is still not so great. Also, the meals I had on my recent long-haul flights were quite mediocre. That’s not to say that economy class food or drinks have been great on United at all in the past few years, but they are certainly not getting better. As for premium cabin dining, I haven’t had a trip lately to compare, but the “standardized” catering in business class is definitely a step down from where it has been in the past. I understand why they did some of what they did and cannot argue the logic too much, but it is definitely a notch below where it was in the not too distant past. For the first time in a few years now the free drink “chits” sent to top elite members have had the design changed. The optimist in me thinks that the bright yellow color is to make it harder for me to lose them in my bag. The cynic in me thinks it is so FAs stop accepting expired chits from passengers. We’ll see how that plays out.
Finally, on the in-flight entertainment and connectivity front, things are very much a mixed bag. There are now more than 150 planes fitted with in-flight wifi and more are having the kit installed every day. The system has reliability issues and isn’t working to a level which anyone – customers or the company – appears happy with, but the hardware is rolling out. The installation of the LiveTV kit on the 737 fleet is proceeding as well, though the service is not yet available to customers. Hopefully soon. United has made it pretty clear that they intend to operate two different types of IFE on their fleet. For the domestic aircraft it will be WiFi and bring-your-own-device streaming only in the long term; for the long-haul fleet most will also have in-seat IFE (though not the 747s). There’s nothing especially wrong with that approach but it is taking a while to get there and the communication on that front has been limited at best. That’s not so friendly. Also, there are some more subtle changes in the offing. On flights where there still is overhead video there will be only one movie choice now for a whole month rather than changing it up half way through like they used to. It is a small change and I rarely watch the movies overhead anyways, but it is one which is hard to describe as customer-friendly.
On the plus side, the company is introducing new, limited edition amenity kits to celebrate the “flyer friendly” campaign. That’s good, right?? There’s one for each CONUS hub, though EWR and IAD are called NYC and D.C., respectively.
At some point in the not too distant past United had a loyalty program which was ridiculously customer-friendly. I could even argue (and probably have more than once) that the program was TOO friendly. It was too easy to bend the rules and to stretch the limits of the system well beyond what the company likely wanted them to be based on what they wrote. To that end I can understand some limitations being placed on how awards are routed or changes to what the costs of awards are. What I am quite opposed to, however, is a set of rules which are sporadically enforced and which are not published at all. That is decidedly unfriendly. The few times I’ve brought it up in casual conversation I’ve been rebuffed quite strongly. United, it would seem, has no intentions of publishing their award rules for customers.
Similarly unfortunate is the change to upgrade policies implemented on 1 November 2013. The overall announcement indicated that the changes were taking effect three months hence, and most of them did, but buried in the small print were changes to the upgrade process which affect a few routes and which took place immediately. Yes, there are probably only a couple dozen routes affected. Still, implementing change without warning to customers is rarely a friendly move and this certainly fits in that mode.
Then there are the silly things, like pulling award inventory for flights on Singapore Airlines metal offline and claiming that it was a “mutual” decision. Did they really think anyone would believe that?
If I had to bet on which legacy airline will win the IdeaWorks survey later this year it will be United, mostly because their website and availability skews towards what is being measured. And they’ll likely ride that result to another year of claiming to be awesome. And in some ways they are. But that doesn’t mean that the policies around the loyalty program are good nor that they’ve gotten better lately. Quite the opposite, in fact.
What else has changed at United lately? How about no more connecting flights for unaccompanied minors as of 5 December 2013? Or a route map change which focuses more on lift to/from the USA and less on flights within Asia? OK, so the GlobalFirst lounge in ORD got a make-over and the lounge in MSP is a bit bigger now; those are arguably improvements, though some are complaining that the ORD change also means less food on the buffet. Or the sudden removal of US/UA codeshare flights on the day the AA/US merger closed, something conveniently omitted from any of their public statements about the situation. The iPhone app has seen an update to better match the new UI coming to the website later in
2013 2014 and the airport kiosks have seen similar updates as well. Passengers who have Star Alliance Gold status through programs other than MileagePlus also saw their baggage allowance downgraded late in the year.
Lots of other things have also changed in the past few months, some for good and some for ill. And that’s OK. But it is hard to believe the company when they’re trying to aggressively portray one thing and their behavior seems to be quite another.
Not friendly at all, really.
- United’s Ka-band wifi is flying, but not yet for passengers
- New MileagePlus award chart released: OUCH!
- United’s MileagePlus Program: Hidden Restrictions-Friendly
- United to slim(line) their 737 fleet
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