CHICAGO -- United Airlines has rolled out a bevy of customer
experience upgrades over the past year and is promising more on the way as it
continues rehabilitating its brand.
"We've taken the narrative about United from this sort of 'What’s
wrong?' to, I think, an exciting 'What’s next?'" CEO Oscar Munoz told a room of
airline industry journalists on Oct. 25.
The occasion was United's Media Day event here, a gathering
the carrier had not held for many years, and one it wouldn't have considered
holding as recently as 2017. That was the year United became the poster child for all
that chafes the U.S. consumer about airlines after a passenger on a United Express
flight was dragged off a plane, bloodied and injured in the process, by Chicago
Department of Aviation Security officers because he refused to give up his seat
for a flight attendant who needed to be relocated.
Since then, however, United has been gradually turning the
tables. The carrier's shares rose sharply in 2018. As of Oct. 30, they were up
approximately 10% this year, easily outperforming United's main competitors -- Delta, American and Southwest -- over
those 22 months.
And despite its difficulties in 2017, United surpassed rival
American in net income that year and maintained that position last year, though
it still lags Delta.
Meanwhile, United has been on the customer service
offensive. The list of enhancements the carrier has rolled out this year alone
is a lengthy one.
To name just a few, in January the carrier began offering
free live television on more than 200 Boeing 737s equipped with seatback
entertainment screens. Also that month, the carrier rolled out a revamped app
with more intuitive navigation and features such as easy flight rebooking in
the case of cancellations or missed connections.
This spring, United began selling premium economy seats on
long-haul flights, an area in which it had lagged Delta and American. In June,
United began officially using its innovative Connection Saver platform, which
tells the airline when it can hold a departing flight at a hub for
late-arriving connecting passengers without causing it to be late. United said
the system has thus far helped about 60,000 passengers make flights.
In the summer, United expanded its snack choices in the
domestic economy cabin from just one on afternoon and evening flights to three
options at all times of the day. And in August, United ended points expiration
in its MileagePlus program.
For high-end passengers, United announced in February that
it would add 1,600 first- and business-class seats as it reconfigures or
introduces nearly 250 aircraft. As part of that initiative, the carrier rolled
out the CRJ-550 this past week, the first 50-seat jet in the industry to have a
true first-class cabin.
In the future, United has said it will retrofit overhead
bin space on as many as 400 aircraft so that by 2023, 80% of its mainline fleet
will have enough stowage for every passenger to bring on a roller bag. United
will also begin refreshing the interiors of its 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145
regional jet fleet early next year.
Beyond those and other changes, United this year has brought
flight attendants, 800 at a time, to two-day events in Chicago at which they
get valued face time with airline executives. The events have been so
successful at boosting morale and service, Munoz said, that United plans to do
the same with customer service agents next year.
Still, the changes haven't fully registered with the flying
public, at least according to two respected consumer rankings. In May's J.D.
Power 2019 North American Airlines Satisfaction Study, United finished last
among the five "traditional" carriers being measured, the others being Alaska,
Delta, American and Air Canada. Then in the June, United was 68th in the
Skytrax ranking of the world's top 100 airlines. While that was up 20 spots
from the previous year, it was the exact same spot United garnered in 2016.
Experts expect numbers like those to improve.
"There's lag time for perception catching up with reality,"
industry analyst Seth Kaplan said. "If they keep making progress, and they do
it to the point where even people who only fly a couple times a year have a
sequence of good experiences on United, it will catch up."
Analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann and Co., added, "I think they've
passed American and are aiming for Delta from a customer service performance
but also from an operational and financial performance metric. There's a lot of
work to be done, but I think they"ve got the elements there."