Outlook For The United Continental Merger

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United is, by far, the most dreadful airline to disgrace the skies of this country.  Their management is the pits, and their employee dissatisfaction is rivaled only by that of United’s customers.  It has been said that an employee will never treat customers any better than they are treated by their management, and United Airlines seems dedicated proving that axiom.    Like breeding a mutant zombie with an average human, the offspring of the United/Continental merger cannot possibly be as bad as United had been.   Conversely, it is the customers of Continental that clearly have the most to loose.

Brett Snyder, AKA The Cranky Flier, has a recent post about the prospects for the combined carrier’s fleet consolidation. It is his observation that Continental, under the leadership of Gordon Bethune, has rapidly upgraded the in flight product of it’s fleet, while United is year and years overdue in it’s upgrades and repainting of its airliners.   That said, I take offense his analogy of United with the Cessna Skyhawk, while comparing Continental to an F-16 fighter.   As someone with hundreds of hours of time piloting and instructing in the Skyhawk, I know that Cessna’s product, while not fast, is reliable and efficient.    Those two words are rarely used to describe United’s operations.

What The New United Really Needs

Imagine if you asked for a glass of water at a restaurant from your server.    The server acted like you were bothering her and told you to ask the busboy.    The busboy said it is not his job, and told you to speak to the host.    The host said she couldn’t help you, but perhaps you could ask another diner for their water.   That is the kind of mind-boggling customer service failures that are the norm, not the exception at United today.   It is the central theme in many United failure stories from Dave Carrol’s “United Breaks Guitars”,  to a multitude of FlyerTalk threads, to my own personal experience.  Painting and upgrading aircraft interiors are needed, but the airline will not have a chance at winning back my business until it undergoes a radical shift in it’s customer service.

If I were in charge of turning United around, I would start by implementing comprehensive service training to all customer facing staff.    No longer would staff be able to tell a customer “it’s not my job.”   I am sure that some of their staff is simply not up to the task of providing competent customer service.    If a non-customer facing position is not available to such a person, it is probably time for that individual to seek a new line of work.

While I think compensating elite level travelers has to continue in some form, I think there should be greater emphasis on treating all customers a little better.    Simply put, United has become a two class airline, with staff occasionally making some attempt to treat their elites well, while treating on-elite passengers with contempt bordering on disdain.    It needs to be drilled into everyone’s head that every elite level passenger was once a non-elite.   You never know who is an elite on another carrier that is considering taking his or her business to your carrier.

United needs to distinguish itself from the pack somehow.  Currently, United is known for terrible service, Starnet Blocking and fees, fees, and more fees.    Other than Economy Plus there really is nothing at United that is better than another carrier.  If United could bring back one small perk from the old days, such as free food, a free checked bag, or even free same day standby, it would win fans nationwide.  If it were up to me, I would have them join Southwest in eliminating change fees.

Simplify

One of the most difficult things about dealing with United is all of their rules.   Understanding their frequent flier program, their upgrade policies, or even redeeming a voucher requires an in-depth study of their kalfk-esqe rules for everything.    It is even more absurd when you have to deal with their poorly trained, outsourced, overseas call center staff who has even less understanding of the rules than you do.   It doesn’t have to be that way.    Someone needs to look through all of their rules and eliminate as many as possible.   It would save both their staff and their customers a huge amount of training and headaches.

Turning around a behemoth as big as United and Continental will be a monumental task.   Many industry observers, like the Cranky Flier, seem to feel that Gordon Bethune is the right person  for the job.    For the sake of United’s customers and staff, I hope he is right.

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