If United Airlines really means to earn passenger trust, it must start listening
Kevin Rafferty says the fanfare over upgraded services rings hollow when fliers routinely face price-gouging, indifferent flight attendants and poor cabin comfort, and United CEO Oscar Munoz could learn a thing or two from Asian airlines
Dear Mr Munoz, after the debacle of Flight 3411 (in which Dr David Dao was dragged from a United Airlines flight), you kindly wrote a personal note to me (and no doubt to other frequent fliers) promising it would not happen again, and signed it “Oscar”. You wrote: “Our customers’ satisfaction must be the centre of everything we do and your opinion of our service is the measure of our success. We know we did not measure up, and for that we will redouble our efforts to earn your trust.”
But can you get your 85,000 employees to keep your promises? Take your most ambitious project: with great fanfare last year you launched your new “Polaris” business class. You promised a complete redesign of United’s business class from “Ahh to Zzz” – a catchy slogan, but where is the content? You focus, correctly, on the seat: “true comfort and a sleep experience like no other”, you promise.
As far as I can judge, the new United Polaris seat is similar to what Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana, Emirates, Qatar and others have been offering for five or more years.
I say as far as I can judge: because, so far, the Polaris seat has been installed on few aircraft. After four business class transpacific flights this year that boasted the new Polaris comfort, twice on nearly new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, twice on Boeing 777s looking grimily worse for wear, I have yet to see the much vaunted Polaris seat. My seat on one of the 777s had collapsed, and sagged in the middle.
You are offering luxury bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue, but cosiness in an uncomfortable seat is not much fun. Your “fleece-lined slippers” are too flimsy. You claim to have upgraded service, offering “soft cotton pajamas” and “a cooling gel memory foam pillow”, but they were never offered, apart from a gel pillow to prop up my collapsed seat.
You tried to improve the food service, but seem not to have understood that the failings in your new hardware encounter your most critical problem – your poor software. I was served ready plated greasy garlic bread and undercooked lukewarm meat. After 20 minutes of trying to get the attention of the serving crew, one of them snatched the untouched tray, saying: “Have you done with that?”
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, once asked me who was the most important person on his aircraft. The captain, I replied, because he has to take us safely. “No,” Branson replied, “I expect my pilots to fly professionally and land safely every time; that’s what I pay them for. The most important person on my flight is the last cabin attendant who served you, who will leave such a good impression that you will fly Virgin again, or not.”
For years, United flight attendants announced that their primary job was passenger safety, no hint of service offered or given. Even today, “Polaris” attendants rarely venture out of their comfort zone.
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American airlines generally have a problem that flight attendants are older – United’s famous Iris Peterson was 85 – and have job protection, whereas some Asian airlines are ruthless in weeding out those who do not perform to exacting standards.
I have had some great flights with United crews who reach out to passengers; but sadly, rarely. On a scale from 1 (awful) to 10 (magnificent), I would rate United cabin crews at 2.5; Cathay at 8; Thai, sometimes 6, sometimes 9; Emirates, 7; Asiana and Singapore Airlines 9. I fear, Mr Munoz, that your software is too defective to handle the improved Polaris hardware, even when it is in place.
There is a bigger problem – the unequal contract that airlines impose on passengers. A few decades ago, you bought a paper ticket, and it was relatively easy to change the flight, even on cheaper excursion tickets. You got 20kg of checked luggage, and meals and drinks in-flight. When business class came in, it cost 10 to 15 per cent more than basic economy.
These days United leads in extracting every last cent from passengers, for checking bags, for seat selection, food and drink, as well as big money for the ticket, which is hard to change without a fee.
A while ago, I bought a US$1,500 return from Japan to Seattle, upgraded with miles to business class. I asked whether I could return a day early, and was told I would have to buy a new one-way ticket at a cost of US$2,980 for economy, and in addition pay a US$250 “change fee”.
Your airline prices return tickets separately for the outward and the home flight, driven by computer yield management as well as some grubby tricks. For Hong Kong to Washington in October, returning four days later, you offer 56 flights outward and 74 flights return. The outward prices range from HK$2,200 to HK$8,000-plus for economy and HK$21,613 or more for business; coming back, the economy price shoots up to HK$20,854 and business is HK$22,000 or more.
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You wrap all your tickets in a 38,000-word “contract” without giving passengers a chance to change even a comma. Mr Munoz, if you mean what you say about putting customers at the centre of everything, you should start listening, please.
Kevin Rafferty has had 1k (100,000 miles) status on United Airlines for 20 consecutive years