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If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And right now, United Airlines is doing a lot of asking as it quizzes businesses on where they’d like to fly to help realign its network.

Nothing new there, perhaps. Airlines often talk to corporate clients when developing routes. This time, though, United is throwing the question out to all of its corporate customers, via its Jetsream customer portal. Real-time responses are then relayed to its network team.

The scheme —  “United together to rebuild our network” — is a call to action to help build its global map back up again, according to airline execs.

“While coronavirus has presented many challenges for all of our businesses, it has also presented unique opportunities to work together and build what’s next,” United said in an email to its customers. “Today we’d like to share one such opportunity with you — a chance to directly inform us of your business travel needs as we rebuild our global map.”

The airline is asking for anticipated destinations, and other details like number of passengers and time frames. Information will be kept confidential, and corporate travel agencies are also invited to submit information on behalf of their clients.

It also wants to hear about any project work, too.

“The only way we’re going to be able to increase demand and get those planes where they need to be, is for you to tell us,” said Sue Skowron, sales manager at United, during a Fox World Travel webinar last week.

“If your companies are looking at a specific destination, or you have project work that needs to be done, we want to hear about it. If you have access to our sales portal, Jetstream … submit your request here. We want to get you there, but we need to know where you need to go.”

It’s an impassioned request, but will it work? And are there any ulterior motives?

Starting From Scratch

The blanket survey approach is, some observers believe, an industry first and actually a good starting point according to one expert, especially with a dearth of short-term booking patterns to look back on since the pandemic grounded flights.

“Booking data will have lost its potency in helping airlines plan routing schedules, so asking the corporate traveler where they might be visiting clients makes sense,” said transport consultant David Classey. “But with survey responses likely to be low due to online fatigue during this pandemic, I can only assume this exercise will add supporting reference data to any schedule planning.”

Meanwhile, the scheme may be really only directed at smaller businesses. To access United’s Jetstream, the minimum threshold is just an annual spend of $10,000 on flights. In theory airlines that value their larger clients, which will represent critical revenue when travel bans are lifted, will have been keeping in close contact since the crisis began.

“All major carriers, including United, are using (Sabre’s data consolidation platform) Prism, so they already have a granular picture on the corporate routes, volume, trend and competition market share,” argued Olivier Benoit, principal and vice president of air, I&A, at Advito.

One travel buyer for a pharmaceutical company, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed: “They are approaching their large strategic customers, like us, on their return to travel route needs to find out which companies are lifting restrictions and where first.”

But they added those conversations have never been so critical in light of the fact many planes will initially be flying at two-thirds their usual capacity due to onboard social distancing. Airlines will need customer guarantees to fill as many seats as possible, or face losing money on those routes.

“These conversations are going to accelerate,” they added — but the challenge for their company is they now need direct flights with no connections for employees due to health and safety concerns. So greater collaboration can only help both parties.

Scaling Down

Smaller clients stand to benefit, and in a sense United’s initiative is clever PR  — “we’re all in this together” is effectively the message it’s sending. “This is a good marketing tool to promote partnership spirit, and shows corporate clients that they matter as well,” said Advito’s Benoit.

“The nice thing here is that United is opening this up to smaller buyers to engage in this conversation about where they should fly,” said GoldSpring Consulting associate Chris Pouney.

But overall he argues the airline is simply engaging in responsible procurement, albeit online. “We would categorize this as capacity or capability building. From a buyer perspective, we need to ensure there is no supply of something at all, or supply shortages which drives prices up. Procurement teams have long since engaged with key suppliers, and conversely smart suppliers long since engaged with buyers to do the same.”

While United’s initiative has good intentions, success will also depend on how fast its network team can react.

“It’s a nice way to capture consumer feedback and needs for a flight,” another buyer in the retail sector, again wishing to remain anonymous, told Skift.

“On one particular route, we contribute a large proportion of premium and non-premium travelers, so the flight is dependent on us. This was cut in March, and it will depend on us, whether and when it will come back. The problem is our lack of ability to give a heads-up early enough to our airline, so they can plan to reestablish the flight.

“Airlines are generally inflexible and slow, and based on past experiences once a change of aircraft took six months from planning to execution  they will be slow to bring those axed flights back, in particular to non-hub operations.”

What Are Other Airlines Thinking?

Skift approached several other major carriers, with feedback suggesting United’s online approach is fairly unique.

“We are always talking with our customers to learn about their travel patterns and seeing what we can do to help them with their travel needs,” a Southwest Airlines spokesperson told Skift. “When it comes to scheduling flights, we look at a variety of metrics including the desires of corporations to ensure new routes will be successful.We also work with our corporate travel partners include adjusting timing on key business routes to allow travelers to do day trips when possible.”

American Airlines also told Skift it takes a personalized approach to requesting input from corporate customers on the routes they need to conduct business.

“We’ve stayed in regular communication with corporate clients over the last several months, to understand their evolving travel restrictions, where they’re flying, which conferences they still plan to attend, and what information about the travel experience they need in order to have confidence in their upcoming travel,” said a spokesperson.

“This regular communication comes to life in weekly calls and regular meetings of our corporate customer advisory board, which is made up of leaders from several of our corporate accounts who are also leaders in their respective industries. The insights we glean from these discussions help inform our network.”

Opening Up

Following JetBlue’s recent decision to add new routes across other airlines’ spheres of influence, taking advantage of current market conditions, could United be looking to move in on rivals’ territory? Could those airlines dragging their heels reinstating routes lose market share?

No so, according to Advito’s Benoit. “All major carriers are asking their top corporate clients for their ramp-up plan. From a business case perspective, United will be able to prioritize which routes should be resumed first, not to assess potential or capture new routes,”

One outcome airlines won’t want to see is the return of another Houston Express — a now defunct airline operation that emerged independently to fill a gap in a network. Without these types of airline-customer conversations, GoldSpring’s Pouney argues the sector could see corporates taking charge themselves, in the same way SonAir’s charter flight materialized between Houston and Angolan capital Luanda.

“Oil suppliers were fed up of being stung on price, they set up their own charter flight. With no direct flights to Houston, travelers from Angola were forced to take indirect flights,” Pouney said. “Therefore in any conversation about starting new routes, an airline would always consider if they are getting the business anyway (via indirect routes) and therefore by adding or protecting a route would dilute their revenue.”

Whatever the reasons behind United’s bid to reshape its corporate travel network this way, the airline deserves credit for taking a fresh approach.

Advito’s Benoit said that both the format and process was innovative, while Mike Heck, vice president, supplier solutions at Fox World Travel, said it was an honest admission the future landscape is going to look different for corporates.

“As airlines start bringing their schedules back, it’s not going to be the exact schedule, and amount of lift, as it was pre-Covid,” he said. “The amount of information that’s flowing from the customer to the airline is critical. Thanks to United for taking this approach and being transparent with your customers.”

Photo Credit: United Airlines is looking to rebuild its corporate travel route network with help from customers. United Airlines