Skift Take

In-flight credit card pitches are officially coming to United Airlines, which is great news for revenue and maybe less-great news for frequent flyers.

Andy Luten was fast asleep, part way through an American Airlines flight a few months ago when an overhead announcement pierced the silence and woke him up. It was a pitch from the flight attendants for the American Airlines co-branded Barclays credit card: sign up today and get special deal just for this flight. After the pitch, cabin crew paced the aisles, holding up applications and answering questions. Frustrated, Luten fired a complaint into the Twitter ether and tried to get back to sleep for the remainder of the flight.

Luten’s experience has become common on American ever since the airline officially merged with US Airways and launched its co-branded Barclays credit card. And though disruptive, the pitch seems to work. Airlines have a captive audience to which they can market the card while flight attendants are given a token kickback for every signup made on the flight. Everyone, from the bank to the airline to the flight attendant, gets a cut.

With the economic benefits too good to pass up, it was only a matter of time until competing carriers started prioritizing the same pitch in-flight, and now that United has a newly retooled co-branded Chase credit card, it’s officially following the same tack.

In an internal message sent to flight crews on Tuesday, John Slater, the senior vice president of inflight services, shared that as of September 1, United would start requiring its flight crews to pitch the card on every domestic and international flight that the airline operates. Additionally, the company is is rolling out new, required training to educate crews on the benefits of the card.

In the past, United has offered an incentive to crews for inflight credit card pitches; with this new change, the pitch will be required.

Slater was frank in justifying the new initiative to his teams. “Some of our biggest competitors, including American, actively promote their cards through the Inflight division and have a sizable lead on the number of new customers their flight attendants generate by marketing the card on board” he said in the message. “We need to answer this challenge just as we would any other competitive threat.”

To motivate crews, Slater also shared that a promotional $100 kickback would be given to any flight attendant who acquired a customer — up from the current $50 bonus.

Reached for comment, a United spokesman confirmed the upcoming changes, saying that “we are introducing a new training program for our co-branded credit card that is especially designed for flight attendants, as this work group has the most engagement with our customers. Our Inflight crew are effective ambassadors, who can best communicate to our customers in the moment the benefits of the United Explorer card.” The flight attendants union could not immediately be reached for comment.

Frequent flyers, who could end up getting the pitches multiple times a week, may not be as enthusiastic. “It’s a tacky way of trying to make a buck on the backs of customers who’ve already paid to fly your airline,” said Luten, an elite member of American’s AAdvantage loyalty program who frequently complains about the pitches online. Others have pointed out that the pitches on American have often been varied and riddled with errors, potentially leading to some erroneous signups.

Those inconsistencies and frequent flyer complaints may fall to the margins as United and its flight attendants start hauling in the revenue from the upcoming credit card pitches. In the end, travelers like Luten may simply need to invest in a better pair of earplugs.


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Tags: american airlines, Barclays, chase, united airlines

Photo credit: A United flight attendant in motion on a premium-service flight United / United Airlines

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