A recent series of flights from Washington to the West Coast and home again gave me a first-hand view of how United Airlines is coping with its series of self-inflicted crises, ranging from drunk pilots on an international flight to the brutal beating by three Chicago policemen of a doctor aboard a United flight from Chicago to Louisville. The cops had been detached to work at O’Hare Airport.
My perspective is that United’s corporate structure is shaking apart … partly because, in my opinion, the airline has grown to become so massive and partly because its top executives are managers, not leaders.
There is such a thing called the “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights,” and no airline is permitted to remove or touch a passenger without providing them with a written copy. Yet, ask any United agent or flight attendant, and they’ll no doubt have no idea about the bill of rights. If United wants to remove you from a plane, demand a copy of the Bill of Rights, first … and then say, “Do not touch me.”
As I chat with friends around the country who have been United frequent flyers for decades, there’s the consensus that United is in trouble. When I was on the West Coast, nearly everyone with whom I met had flown in on Southwest rather than United … a conscious decision. One former United fan told me that she and her consultant husband simply choose to no longer fly United.
So … a little background might be helpful to understand United’s woes:
When United Airlines launched its frequent flyer program, called MileagePlus, in 1981, its primary purpose was to create passenger loyalty. Loyalty. By selecting United for our travel needs, United rewarded passengers.
Passengers earned points based on mileage, and the more points, the better the rewards, including free upgrades to First Class. If someone flew 100,000 miles in a year, they were rewarded the coveted “1K” class by United, and upgrades were just one of many perks.
Thousands of people pledged their loyalty to United and vied for the rewards. Frequent flyer programs by default created two classes of airline passengers — the haves and the have nots … or those who might quality for an upgrade and those relegated to sit in the steerage seats of coach.
I, for one, relished United’s frequent flyer program because all those miles I accrued through business trips could be redeemed for a nice, free personal trip, including international travel.
But, good things seldom last for long. Deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 promised all sorts of advantages, such as lower fares, for the flying public in the United States but the opposite happened — large airlines gobbled up smaller airlines. Regional airlines disappeared, acquired by the big guys.
For the scores of loyal United passengers, things rapidly turned sour following the merger in 2010 with Continental Airlines. It was abundantly clear that United’s business objective was in boosting profits and the airline’s loyalty was to its shareholders, not its frequent flyers.
United’s MileagePlus program was dramatically revamped. No longer were passengers given an award point per mile flown but rather points based on a complex computer algorithm that calculated, among other things, how much was spent on the ticket. United quietly terminated any blush of loyalty on their part.
United all of a sudden rewarded passengers who have the means to spend the most on tickets and no longer the business passenger who may fly more but is limited by budgets.
At the same time, United ordered new models of passengers aircraft, usually Boeing, designed for more and smaller seats. A United economy seat today is 17.1 inches wide, and the airline has plans to make them smaller. The cockpit of United’s new fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft is smaller with less room for the pilots … but will permit more passenger seats.
United has managed to squeeze more economy seats into its Boeing 777 fleet than anyone else — 10 across with reduced legroom. Ten seats across is the most of any airline. Some seats do not recline. The seats, designed with little padding, offer no lower back support and are painful on long flights. (Note … the new Airbus A-380 Plus double-deck airliner has only nine (9) across seating.)
United is making money … a lot of money … on the backs of loyal passengers. The airline earned $3.8 billion net profit in 2016, making investors happy and giving top executives, including CEO Oscar Munoz, fat bonuses.
But, United’s reputation came crashing down in late April of this year because of sheer greed by the airline … overbooking. A passenger — a doctor headed home to Louisville — was dragged off a United flight by three thugs masquerading as Chicago police. The world’s news media pounced on the story, and Munoz foolishly rushed to blame the passenger. He later recanted.
The incident — a classic case of a massive self-inflicted crisis by a money-driven company — reportedly may cost United upwards of $1.5 billion in damage settlements and loss of goodwill. More than that, it illustrates astonishingly poorly management at the airline, executives with little vision or communications skills. Employee training morale is shameful. United’s approach to corporate communications is amateurish — staging “town hall” meetings for Munoz to meet with employees, a tired PR gimmick of politicians, and all the time keeping Munoz isolated from once fiercely loyal frequent flier customers.
If Munoz were half a CEO, he would tirelessly fly United planes in economy and listen to employees and passengers. But, then, Munoz is no Sir Richard Branson who is known to regularly fly on his Virgin Atlantic airline to help flight attendants serve meals and drinks.
As for me, I’ve signed up for Southwest’s frequent flyer program, hoping JetBlue expands its routes, and wishing that the U.S. had a truly great airline, like easyJet based in Britain. I believe things will change …