Are United’s skies any friendlier?


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.

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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.

In-flight

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.

Loyalty

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.

Miscellany

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.

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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.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

22 Comments

  1. “The iPhone app has seen an update to better match the new UI coming to the website later in 2013 and the airport kiosks have seen similar updates as well.”

    I think you mean 2014.

  2. I’m queued up to get you a Friendly LAX amenity tin on 1/27. That is unless AA 32 saver first opens up.

  3. I have to say their web online booking with miles ( for overseas flights in our case) is the best of the lot.

  4. Since the Mileage Plus changed were announced, I already shifted my travel away from UA so that I will no longer be a 1K in 2014, but a mere Platinum. Now, considering the number of UA IRROPS (mechanicals, mice on planes and so on) that I experienced, along with the cavalier way in which UA treats affected passengers, I decided that I will fly even less on UA in 2014, and aim to barely reach 50K flown miles, whereas in the past I regularly achieved 135-160K for several years consecutively.

    I would rather just say NO to that douchebag $mi$ek

  5. They may be more friendly towards the occasional traveler, and I do think they are trying to have more broad appeal and improve the average travelers interactions. This is good. However I feel they have got unfriendly towards actual frequent fliers. I may sound like a broken record but selling upgrades to infrequent customers rather than giving them to those who spend a lot will hurt them in the long run. CO may have got away with it when they had a few fortress hubs, but it’s just not going to work for UA. Their GPU policy is also unfriendly where they do the same thing while people are waitlisted, having already paid for a higher fare for that privilege.
    I suspect they will feel the effect of this in ’14. I have probably spent well over their 1K target spend of $10k a year for the last several but ’14 is a burn year, and I’m just going to fly what is cheapest when I have to pay. I have already spent $5K on other airlines.

  6. Hi Seth,
    First, wanted to mention that I had the pleasure of meeting you a couple of years ago at an FTU event and have always appreciated your blogs and willingness to share your vast knowledge with others on frequent flyer items.

    I definitely agree that United has become less customer friendly. My latest and (final straw) incident was having my luggage heavily damaged (pull handle ripped off and zipper ripped apart at the seams on a roller bag) when I checked it while flying on a 1st Class flight on UA.

    The old “friendly” United would have taken steps to fix or replace my bag. The current United stated that “they are no longer responsible for any damage to checked luggage”. Only when I pointed out that I happened to be an elite member (lowly Silver but one nevertheless), would the person in the baggage claim office give me a UA Baggage Damage claim number. From there started a time eating exercise where I emailed twice and snail mailed once only to get a form letter after 2 months stating that they were reimbursing me for the shipping cost I had incurred to ship my bag to be repaired ($28) and they considered the “matter to be closed”. I guess I should feel lucky that I got anything at all.

    Contrast that to the handling of baggage damage issues (hey damage to luggage does happen) at US or AA (even during their bankruptcy) and it’s obvious to me that things have taken a turn for the worse at UA. It is pretty clear to me that the staff at UA are overworked (over 2 months to reply) and trying to do the best with what they have.

    It’s a real shame, United used to be such an excellent airline. I’m hoping that US/AA don’t go the same way after the merger is completed. Thanks for the opportunity to comment/vent.

  7. This is kind of old news, but also, Channel 9 is slowly disappearing from United. Some may not care, but for us aviation geeks, that’s a big deal. And unfriendly.

  8. I would like it if they did not force the whole “Flyer Friendly” message quite so much. I can understand reading from a script when they do the safety briefing. Reading from a script about how they are trying to make the world’s most flyer friendly airline sounds disingenuous.

  9. I fly ~50k miles/year on United out of NYC and find myself considering a switch to Delta. The changes at United that you and others mention are concerning to me, but I’d be more interested in learning how the changes at United compare to the alternatives (eg, Delta). For example, it’s easy to hear about PQD spending requirements on United and think that it’s terrible and I should switch…but it appears to be a new industry standard as others such as Delta are implementing the same change.

  10. I think UA’s Friendly Skies campaign is very much tone deaf and disingenuous, in light of how things are with the airline lately. Not that its competitors haven’t disappointed me in some ways either. But UA has really gone off the rails, IMHO.

    Though its FFP isn’t great, I feel I’m treated better and have a superior flight experience on Delta. I’ve recently flown WN for the first time in 15+ years and I can’t say UA has anything that much more compelling for short domestics, aside from an FFP where I can redeem for international travel.

  11. Two things bother me about the direction in which UA is headed.

    The first is that virtually ever change they are making is focused on cost cutting, virtually without regard for its revenue impact or its customer impact. While you say not all of them are flyer friendly, reality is that virtually every change has been flyer unfriendly. Other than ancillary revenue efforts, it doesn’t seem like UA is doing much if anything to attract higher fares. UA once was clearly superior in product compare to NW on Asia flights. It’s like they are giving up on trying to compete with DL on product quality.

    The second is that UA behaves like it has a lack of candor, forthrightness and integrity. I can cite dozens of examples, whether it’s the communication regarding removing Singapore Airlines inventory from the website or the communication when they replaced the decent tasting Starbucks with the dreck from Freshbrew and told us it has won a taste test. But it seems to go on and on. It even feels like internally UA doesn’t listen to front line employees or customers. It’s as if the emperor has no clothes but everyone is afraid to tell him the truth… Even if they still win a Mileage Plus contest, UA is coming out in last place on every consumer survey. Then you have to discount to fill you seats. Downward spiral. Really seems like they need a wake-up call. They’ve only been spared because of the industry-wide capacity discipline. Maybe they’ll get another gift if the AA-US merger goes badly, but if it goes well, UA will continue to have revenue problems based on the path they are on.

  12. For me, it’s the worst form of advertising today (and a slap in the face of Mr Burnett): advertising your product without regard or coordination of what the product is.

    I’m a 1K and a marketing exec. The Burnett campaign came to frame what the legacy United was: great people doing their best for you in every way, backed up by a pretty good hard product. This relaunch tries to put that legacy against a backdrop of unhappy employees (it’s now sport to find the smiles on the PMUA crews), regressive policies and practices (from a UA standpoint). It was shocking to me to see this campaign launched, with pretty nice execution, followed in a few weeks by MileagePlus devaluation and other changes. That pointed out how marketing is just a label at UA now.

    See Delta: Keep Climbing

    Ezra, I may be following you.

    1. You have mentioned an interesting point. I was also thinking as, why UNITED chose to re-define the meaning of Friendly Skies with old marketing music and concept, and devaluated products, when it could have instead “re-invent” itself as a new global airline.

  13. I’m leaving tomorrow for an international itinerary and only discovered that my opening leg is canceled because I looked to see about on-line check in. No notification from United and no option for rebooking options online. I’ve tried calling in 7 times now and been disconnected because they are “having technical difficulties.” I’ve submitted web form and email but no response as of yet.

    Is this how United typically operates? I’m a Delta flyer and not used to this level of service. I’m flying business class on Star Alliance but cannot imagine the difficulties I’m going to have getting there given what is going on now.

  14. Here is another flyer-friendly skies improvement: UNITED has completely eliminated pre-meal coctail snacks (small pretzel) on all international flights effective immediately.

  15. All of these negative changes started at the top. JS is not an Airline friendly guy. He’s bean counter who appears clueless on what it takes to make the customer and the employee’s happy, and manages with an Iron fist. Does this sound “Friendly”

  16. Mr Seth,
    as a retired employee of UA it pains me to read what you wrote and the ensuing comments from loyal former UA customers, not because they are not true, but because they are.
    YOU, the travelling public are the only ones who can change this spiral decline and possible demise of what was once a great company.
    From the way the new management started treating the retirees from the moment they took over, we knew that it was going to be a VERY bumpy ride for all, most of all for YOU our customers.
    Yes their words have not matched their actions since the takeover – takeover is correct because merger is another word that does not match the action-, this is a very autocratic leadership that has made it clear that any idea that do no match theirs will result in the departure of the person holding and expressing those ideas, a sure blueprint to failure.
    Thank you for speaking up, hopefully the BOD will hear you loud and clear, I hate to see my dedication and hard work of 36 years being erased by an inept leader with a golden parachute.

  17. I would say not – in fact, everyone I talk to says service has gone downhill since the merger. We flew United First domestic recently and were astounded at how little our status got us. The flight attendant in our cabin was so rude and snarky. And my father is a Premier 1K member and not impressed either with their staff onboard. I agree with you, false advertising only drives up expectations and makes things worse when they aren’t met. I’ve actually received better service in economy class – in terms of friendliness – but to me the real mark of an airline is what you get as a premium customer.

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