United struggles to lead the pack

Airlines don’t get old so much as just get tired. It seems to get harder for most of the airline industry’s true pioneers, particularly those in the English-speaking world, to get themselves to the starting line each day without the telltale signs of disinterest.

Planes are virtually rebuilt by the engineers every 10 years or so, even before they’re sold off to become freighters or to be parked in the dry air of the Arizona desert, but renewing the staff’s enthusiasm is, by orders of magnitude, a more difficult problem.

Onboard customer service begins to get all too casual and careless, broken seats aren’t fixed until they absolutely have to be and the whole customer experience starts to become fraught.

Twenty or 30 years ago,  United Airlines was famous for all the wrong reasons, featuring in some of the world’s worst air accidents. Thankfully, since then, it has become far more predictable and boring.

But, in the mass travel era, when the customer is king and competition abounds – most of the time – it is figuratively deadly to alienate your customers.

United’s most famous achievement of the past two years has been to motivate a You Tube smash hit for bad behaviour, its Chicago ground handlers wrecking a Canadian musician’s prized Taylor guitar, then fighting a year-long battle to prevent him receiving compensation. At last count, Dave Carroll’s catchy rockabilly tune, United Breaks Guitars, had racked up almost 11 million hits.

But something else happens to tired old brands, especially in America: far from being disciplined about their cost base, if they are not continuously reducing it to cope with the airline business’s habit of constant economic shocks, irreversible failure can creep up on you, strike you down and turn you into a fire sale.

United and Continental Airlines were staring down that possibility last year as they surveyed the smoking American landscape after the global financial crisis, which was mainly the American financial crisis until Europe joined in.

Thankfully for consumers, their merger is about more than cost-cutting: While the joint entity will use the United name when the merger is completed in the next year, the airline has inherited Continental’s attitude to customer service and its chief executive, Jeff Smisek.

“We're going to take the $1 billion to $1.2 billion a year we expect to achieve in merger synergies and plow it back into our product, technology, fleet, facilities and our most important asset: our people,” Smisek told US business magazine Forbes last week.

The company announced in August it was spending an extra $US550 million in onboard product improvements in an attempt to be America’s leading international carrier.

United will substantially increase the number of flat-bed seats available on long-haul flights and add Economy Plus (premium economy) seating to the Continental mainline fleet, allowing it to claim more of these popular seating amenities than any other US carrier.

The airline is installing wireless access on more than 200 aircraft, nearly doubling overhead storage space on about 150 aircraft, and  installing flat-bed seats in business class, audio and video on demand, Wi-Fi and in-seat power.

The airline says it listened to customer feedback and is installing the popular Channel 9 (live air traffic control audio) throughout the Continental fleet. United will also upgrade baggage systems at major hubs and make other airport facility improvements.

From Australia, United has daily separate non-stop flights from Sydney to Los Angeles and San Francisco, with an extension to Melbourne, and has been going out of its way in the past two years to stress that it’s in Australia for the long-haul, despite extra competition on the trans-Pacific route from Virgin Australia and US carrier Delta on top of Qantas’s domination.

Nevertheless, with the fleet configuration still being renovated, customer service still appears to be patchy. It’s 10 years since I have flown with United to the US and that flight – in business class – was extremely ordinary.

On the most comprehensive consumer feedback websites like airlinequality.com, UA still gets a fearful pasting from a number of customers, while others rate the airline acceptable for the price – a useful hook in the Australian market as UA is often the price leader. And the airline caters for a large US corporate market with business to do Down Under.

Have you flown with United from Australia in the past few years? How did they rate? What attracted you to UA? Would you fly with them again? Where do you reckon they rate in the pack flying between Australia and North America?