Skift Take

United is in a position now where it's making more money than it should, thanks to the low cost of oil. Now it needs to invest those revenues wisely to stem the tide of departing customers.

In last Thursday’s Business Traveler Newsletter the topic of United Airlines’ performance came up. As a frequent flier of the airline myself, I suggested that the media may be a bit critical of the airline.

After all, profits are up, catering is improving and the airline is in the process of renewing its fleet — a few negative stories doth not an angry mob make, right?

I put the question to the newsletter community and the comments came back en masse. Surprisingly, only two in a dozen readers shared my viewpoint. The rest of the community had some pretty harsh criticism.

“My biggest pet peeve with United is they fail to value the customer,” a consumer education writer named Janice told me.”Their customer service is horrible.”

“After years of only flying United, my biggest issue with UAL (besides the uncomfortable economy seat) is their intentional move away from the economy frequent flier to reward the high-ticket fliers,” said Rand Pearsall, another frequent flier. “It is not my place to deny them greater profitability, but today’s budget flier can become tomorrow’s business/first class flier. Their recent moves mean I will be far less brand loyal to United than in recent years.”

Some of the complaints still stem from a merger between United and Continental that continues to draw rifts between both the employees and the consumers. After a series of snafus with United flights, one former customer offered up the following anecdote:

“I was a Continental platinum flyer for years and was really sad when they merged with United.  Service went downhill so far, so fast (did they hire all those surly flight attendants from another airline or were they all ‘re-conditioned’ in a lab somewhere?) that I did a status switch to Delta and never looked back.

“Delta has been really good—as good as the old Continental was and sometimes better.  United has continued to slip so far that it’s hard to believe there are any old bones of Continental in that United body.”

Do these unhappy fliers represent the turning tide of public opinion away from United? In many ways, yes. The last few years have seen United change its business practices away from catering to the common traveler and towards the high-spend, lucrative business traveler. But along with that shift comes the burden of its demographic. Business travelers expect more from their dollar, are more vocal about their problems and though loyal, are willing to take their money to another, fancier carrier. If your product can’t live up to your marketing, then people will leave for greener pastures. In this case, that’s Delta.

Whether the airline can stop the bleeding is the most important question. Already the airline has stepped up its customer and cabin service, the most passenger-facing facet of the company. They’re also running a mileage promotion to keep valuable business travelers from defecting to other carriers.

That may not be enough. Many think that the problem stems from the executive suite and they’re demanding a shakeup. A disgruntled group of former and current employees even went so far as to start a petition on calling for the CEO’s ouster.

As dark clouds continue to grow on the horizon there’s a good chance that a storm is coming for United. Whether passengers stick around for the ride may spell out the ultimate future for the airline.

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Tags: loyalty, united airlines

Photo credit: A worker from United attends to some customers during their check in process at Newark International airport in New Jersey. 122230 / 122230

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