United's new CEO still doesn't get it

Since taking over Chicago-headquartered United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) on Sept. 8, the airline’s new CEO has been saying some of the right things but, as my late mother was fond of saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” So far, his actions haven’t measured up.

United 737 departing SEA
In an interview with the Chicago Tribunes’ editorial board, Oscar Munoz acknowledged the airline has not lived up to customers’ expectations but promised to “show that we’re listening.”

To that end, United on Oct. 1 published an advertising message from Munoz in 13 publications that, like his Sept. 15 email to United customers, was long on generalities but short on specifics. See "United Airlines' new CEO speaks out ... but says nothing."

In his most recent message, Munoz admitted that the airline hasn’t “lived up to … the promise and potential of” the merger with Continental Airlines in addition to some very general statements including “We are committed to re-earning your trust,” and “We need to do the small things well. We have to deliver meaningful, everyday improvements.”

In that message, Munoz also announced that airline has launched UnitedAirtime.com, where customers and employees can leave feedback. The landing page features a picture of the smiling CEO under four category headings: Your questions answered, Your ideas, Our actions, and Our stories. One of the entries under “Our actions” provides an excellent illustration of how United and its CEO apparently still don’t get it.

Under the subtitle, “Sit Back and Relax,” the website proudly proclaims that “Seats offering greater comfort in first-class cabins will debut on Airbus A319s, followed by A320s and Boeing 737s and 757s throughout 2016.”

Mr. Munoz, here is one simple thing United can do to show that you are sincere: upgrade the seats in the so-called “main cabin” and give the average traveler more room.

There is an excellent business case to be made for doing so.

According to SeatGuru.com, United’s A319s have 42 EconomyPlus seats, 78 standard economy seats … and eight first-class seats. That means there are 15 times more passengers in steerage than in first class.

Beyond that, while the prices for first class seats are several multiples of coach ticket prices, airlines historically sell very few first class seats for the full published fares. Most of those seats are occupied by passengers who upgrade using accrued frequent flier miles, who have a negotiated corporate discount (quoted by some sources to be anywhere from 20 to 50 percent), are executives or employees of the airline or its preferred vendors, or are others deemed to be commercially important passengers.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of passengers travel in the main cabin and usually pay for their seats with actual dollars. Therefore, upgrading the main cabin before focusing on first class would provide a greater return in terms of positive PR and customer loyalty.

On United’s A319s, the pitch in standard economy is a mere 30 inches. Even EconomyPlus seats only offer 34 inches of pitch. Pitch is the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the next.

For comparison, Virgin America’s A319s have 111 seats in economy – 12 Main Cabin Select and 99 standard economy. Standard Economy seats have a 32 inch pitch and Main Cabin Select have 38 inches. Like United, Virgin America’s A319s also have eight first-class seats.

In total, Virgin’s A319s carry 119 passengers compared to 128 on United. If Virgin can get by with nine fewer passengers, why can’t United? The answer is: It could if it wanted to.

In these times of record airline profits, and in view of Munoz’s expressed desire to make United the travelers’ airline of choice, that would be an excellent – and concrete – first step. Without it or some similar action, we travelers will be left wondering if Munoz meant what he said and said what he meant.

Will this CEO be faithful to the airline's passengers 100 percent? Only time will tell.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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