Story and Photos by Chris Sloan
CHICAGO – We arrived at an unmarked venue in Chicago pulsating with throbbing pop music, heavy hors d’oeurves being passed out, a full bar, and a hip night club atmosphere that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas.
Except we’re not in Las Vegas. We’re just outside the loop in Chicago at United Airlines’ first media day in recent memory. I ask myself “Am I sure I’m at the right event? Is this really United?”
United Airlines, not long ago the U.S. airline industry’s whipping boy has been on a tear by virtual every metric: operational, financial, labor relations, morale, and customer experience. Over the last three years, the airline has been transformed.
Josh Earnest, the newly installed SVP Chief Communications Officer who was Press Secretary under President Obama admitted right off the bat “The reason we bought you here is we have a good story to tell.”
An impressive contingent of industry and mainstream press from around the world converged on United’s hometown to hear directly from the carrier’s leadership team about United’s journey – one that has been filled with highs and well-documented lows. Hello, Dr. Dao? Muñoz, humbly went so far as to say “I own the mistakes we made in 2017.”
Rewinding back to 2016 when CEO Oscar Muñoz, first joined the carrier, he recounted “I went on a listening tour. It damn near killed me, literally.” – referring to his near-fatal heart attack early into his tenure.
Muñoz claims “The turning point for me was when a flight attendant broke down in tears and told him ‘I’m tired of always saying I’m sorry’”. Muñoz, a culture warrior took her comments to heart.
He admits much work is left to be done but is proud that the narrative is changing. “We’ve taken the narrative from what’s wrong to what’s next”.
Front line employees and executive alike such as Kate Gebo – EVP HR and Labor Relations continuously echoed Munez’s mantra of “We’re showing employees and customers proof, not promises. We’re listening, learning, and then leading.”
United was rarely associated with leading, other than in scale. It has always traditionally operated as a stodgy behemoth. With newly found innovation and success, it has swagger in its step.
Even mojo. Though Rhapsody in Blue hasn’t quite been replaced by Imagine Dragons, this isn’t your father’s United. It has transformed into a disruptive innovative company.
As a setting for the event, United chose the event space it calls Backstage. 21,000 flight attendants have attended 28 events held here so far.
Gebo says “Our team is on stage every day on the plane and at the airport. Backstage is not about training. It’s about engaging.”
United claims customer satisfaction scores have risen significantly since the program began. 15,000 Customer service agents will be the next workgroup to attend Backstage.
United billed their media day as #UnitedFlightPlan employing high production values, unfettered access to executives, a dizzying amount of fully on the record presentations, candid Q&A sessions, and a blitzkrieg of news announcements.
Trying to unpack all of it in detail would increase this post’s word count into the five digits. So rather than deep diving into it all, we’re going to share the highlights from the 10,000-foot view.
THE MAX ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
United has extended cancellations of its 14 delivered 737 MAXs until January. But with FAA certification test flights not beginning until next month at the earliest and the fluid nature of the grounding; no one really knows when the aircraft will re-enter service.
Munoz echoed what he has said before but admitted passengers may still be fearful to fly on the MAX when it returns to service. If so the airline will rebook passengers to other non-MAX flights at no cost.
The airline still hopes to take delivery of 40-50 new 737 MAXs in 2020 to fuel its growth, depending on when the grounding is lifted. In the meantime, the retirement of some aircraft such as the 757 has been delayed and United continues to opportunistically pursue the used aircraft market, buying for example A319s.
Munez turned the stage over to Scott Kirby, President of United. Kirby’s made his mark as wunderkind in revenue management and network planning while at US Airways and then American.
While universally respected throughout the industry, he has never really been known as a culture and pro-customer guy.
He’s often perceived as the man behind the Muñoz curtain, really pulling the screens of the airline’s schedule and pricing. A different Scott Kirby than “the math guy” emerged on the stage.
“This is a new United Airlines. We are re-investing our profits into the customer experience which creates a virtuous circle”, Kirby remarked. He further revealed a different side saying “As we invest in customer experience, it improves our profitability.
The secret sauce is the incredible team.” As Eminem might have said, “Will the real Scott Kirby please stand up?” But, this Scott Kirby was real and on-stage right before us.”
Kirby processes a passion in sustainability which has manifested itself in EcoSkies. Kirby believes United is the most ecological friendly airline on the planet: “United Eco-Skies wants to be revolutionary, not evolutionary in sustainability.”
Earlier this year agreed to purchase up to 10 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel over the next two years.
Globally compared to all other airlines, United proclaims it “holds more than 50% of all publicly announced purchase commitments to using sustainable aviation fuels and is the only U.S. carrier to currently use this fuel on a continuous basis.”
With a nod to global warming, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He took the occasion to break the first news of the day that United was plying $40 million into creating an investment vehicle in companies “that will drive us to be carbon neutral.”
Further showing its eco-cred, Luc Bondar MileagePlus President and VP of Loyalty announced a new program targeted to the increasingly important eco-aware Millennial passenger. United is covering the cost of carbon offset for 25,000 18-22-year-old travellers.
While many in the audience would have paid dearly to attend a Kirby master-class in revenue management, he turned the next presentation over to Kate Gebo, EVP Human Resources and Labor Relations.
Gebo announced 34,000 jobs over next year with 40% related to growth and 60% replacing retiring staff.
The airline says it expects 3,000,000 job applications for these jobs through 2022 so it can afford to be very discerning in who it hires.
With the pilot shortage becoming acute, United created the Aviate Program. It offers new pilots a clear career path from regionals to legacies thus reducing churn.
United says it will be adding 4,000 pilots in 2020. The airline is launching a similar recruiting program for maintenance technicians.
UNITED UPS ITS TECH STACK GAME
In short order, United has embraced technology like never before. To achieve this, the airline went out of the industry when it installed veteran CIO Linda Jojo as its EVP of Technology and Chief Digital Officer.
Jojo drew the first applause of the day as United announced that its new virtual reality 360-degree seat map would go live on united.com that weekend – first with the new United Express three-class CRJ-550.
This interactive seat map allows passengers to tour the cabin virtually and perhaps entice passengers to upgrade to another cabin.
Jojo and EVP and Chief Operations Officer Greg Hart then fired off a flurry of announcements, factoids, and updates. Stay with me….
United is partnering with one of its largest corporate customers, Apple with a rumoured corporate spend in the neighbourhood of $150 million annually.
Though Jojo was deliberately vague, reports are that the partnership could involve significant renovations at San Francisco Airport. And given Apple’s innovative technology, this likely wouldn’t be a typical renovation.
And it probably wouldn’t stop there with other new apps and technologies.
Speaking of Apple, United confirms they now have iPads and iPhone devices in the hands of 60,000 employees.
United is rolling out apps which empower the cabin crew to determine passenger compensation on the spot, plus report incidents and aircraft maintenance items.
The new apps use data to enhance the passenger experience especially for high-value customers from recognizing them on milestones like their birthdays or crossing a MileagePlus membership tier.
Meal orders are now taken digitally rather with pen and paper. Beyond improving #PaxEx, the apps provide the airline with meaningful data.
There’s an app for that, and that, and that: UA’s new mobile app is the most downloaded airline app.
It was re-designed with input from 300 customers. The company officers were Beta testers along with 18,000 employees. Upcoming features include adding TSA checkpoint times.
Technology is playing a critical role in improving operational system recovery for the passenger.
United operates “a network that’s difficult due to where are hubs are. We lead the industry in weather recovery. We depart on-time and complete more flights on bad weather days than our competitors,” said Hart.
Following American’s lead, United added a new feature called Soft Landing which allows passengers whose flights have been delayed overnight to chose and book their hotel rooms from a list pushed to their device rather than wait in line for accommodations.
Another new tool allows passengers to rebook a cancelled or missed flight from a selection of options, without contacting customer service. This streamlined recovery tool is not only beneficial to the passenger, but to the ground staff who can help those who don’t use the UA app, freeing then up with other tasks.
United developed a new tool in house that has become lauded by passengers and the industry alike. The first of its kind ConnectionSaver allows United to hold selected flights at its seven hubs to enable delayed customers to make their connection.
“25% of our schedule is planned to arrive more than 10 minutes early. We ignored that gift for along time until we rolled out Connection Saver. We can hold flights and still have them arrive on time. We’ve saved 60,000 connections across our seven hubs (since the tool’s introduction in June), and up to 10,000 per month. Those flights actually arrive more on time than a comparable flight” with an average departure delay of four minutes.
Hart denied that the airline is padding its schedule to make ConnectionSaver results appear better.
And almost as an afterthought, United disclosed it has joined the CLEAR bio-metric boarding technology fray along with Delta and JetBlue beginning with five to 10 daily flights in Houston.
NETWORK NEWS, FUN, AND GAMES
Even with all the network contraction of the Smisek years, United’s network has always been the envy of its industry. Andrew Nocella, EVP & CCO who with Kirby joined United from American says “75% of business traffic in the U.S. fly through United ’s seven hubs.”
On average each day, United operates 4,900 flights carrying 450,000 passengers. This translates into enviable scale, and ever-escalating with growth exceeding the industry.
Nocella reminded the crowd that when the airline announced a significant capacity increase to regain what Kirby called “United’s natural share” that there was scepticism. “There were many doubters on Wall Street when we said we were growing by 5%. but we don’t do growth for growth’s sake.”
To say the airline is on a growth spurt is an understatement. United has added 27 international routes, 100+ domestic routes, and 425 daily departures in the last three years.
Denver, United’s most profitable and fastest-growing hub, was cited as the epitome of that growth as it grows from 503 daily departures in 2019 to 550 departures in 2020. United’s fortress Newark hub is enjoying its most growth in a decade.
United broke the news it was entering the crowded New York – Washington shuttle market. Beginning next Spring, UA will connect its Newark (EWR) and Washington Reagan National (DCA) hubs with up to 13 daily flights using the newly introduced premium heavy CRJ-550s and Embraer E-175s.
United already operates eight daily flights between Newark and Washington Reagan (DCA).
Nocella didn’t confirm any special amenities normally associated with its competitors’ shuttle services such as complimentary alcoholic beverages, rear-door boarding, or same-day flight changes. Instead, he offered “It’s about the convenience of an hourly pattern.”
Next Summer, Newark will be the recipient of a sixth Newark-London Heathrow (LHR) daily nonstop flight, departing at 8:00 PM.
With this flight, United now operates an hourly evening shuttle from EWR-LHR with departures at 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 with all being flown by the new 46-seat Polaris and 22 Premium Plus cabin heavy “Hi-J” 767s.
United recounted their Tokyo Haneda (HN) ramp up with its new slots running up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics from Los Angeles (LAX), Newark (EWR), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), and Washington Dulles (IAD) using a combination of 777-200ERs and 787-10s.
The airline also took the occasion to remind the audience of its mushrooming number of recently introduced and coming European routes.
United, who already flies the largest number of wide-bodies domestically, announced leisure configured 777-200 would be deployed beginning in March between Newark (EWR) and Orlando MCO) joining the existing flight between Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Orlando.
Additional 777, “Hi-J 767s” and the first 787 wide-body service is coming to the hometown Chicago hub, as United doubles down on high-yield growth at ORD while its main competitor, American has retrenched somewhat particularly on Pacific routes.
It’s game on for United’s burgeoning domestic and network. With multiple route announcements, the airline decided to button the cascade of Powerpoint slides with a live on-stage game show.
Channelling their inner Drew Carey’s were Dave Bartels VP, Pricing and Revenue Management; Patrick Quayle VP, International Network; and Ankit Gupta, VP of Domestic Network Planning. Contestants were influential journalists, bloggers, and analysts who were invited to “Come on down and play ‘The Flight Is Right!’.
New routes announced in the form of answers to the game show included between O’Hare and: Vail, Colorado (EGE); Santa Barbara, California (SBA); and Pasco, Washington (PSC).
In answers to trick questions, United revealed the first-ever nonstop flight between Denver (DEN) and Nassau, Bahamas (NAS); and between Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and Spokane, Washington (GEG).
Other Q&A topics covered fun facts such as United’s longest routes, the cheapest day of the week to fly, and the best day and time of the week to purchase tickets. The winner of the game’s Showcase Showdown went home with a 737-800 model presented by CEO Oscar Muñoz amidst a confetti shower!
UNITED MEANS BUSINESS
United claims competitive advantages not just in terms of scale, network, but also premium products targeted directly to high yield business travellers. The airline touted it has 50% more Economy Plus seats available than its domestic mainline competition.
Nocella says this premium product emphasis is a win/win for the airline with higher revenue potential, and for its business customers who are availed with better chances for upgrades and more premium seats.
To prove his point, Nocella says its: advantage United on a typical international configuration 777-200 with an average of 50 Polaris Business seats versus 37 on American and 28 on Delta.
To allow this growth Nocella exclaims: “Instead of adding seats, we’re removing them” with the High Premium 767s and new United Express CRJ-550 the most obvious proof. The CRJ-550 and High J 767s, in particular, are generating a United advantage over American at its Chicago O’Hare hub.
They see this only growing with an 11% increase in premium seats on average per domestic departure on tap for 2020.
The slow and uneven roll-out of Polaris has earned it the dubious nickname Fauxlaris. United hopes perception catches up with reality. United confirms 50% of the Polaris retrofits are now completed with a converted aircraft rolling out every five days.
By the end of 2020, 90% of the fleet earmarked for Polaris refits will be completed and “the vast majority completed” for Premium Plus. The 787-8 and 787-9s, international 777-200ERs, and 767-300’s existing premium cabins will be refurbished with Polaris and Premium Plus as well.
All the new 787-10s and 777-300ERs have been inducted into the fleet with Polaris and Premium Plus. United claims a trans-con advantage, being the only airline to operate a next-generation 787-10 or any next-generation wide-body on the lucrative routes between Newark and Los Angeles and San Francisco.
With the added premium capacity, United boasts its extremely generous with the upgrades of 80% of MileagePlus Gold members receiving an upgrade to Economy Plus.
ARE THE SKIES FRIENDLY AGAIN FOR PASSENGERS?
Long thought of an industry laggard in innovating the passenger experience, United began to change the narrative with the 2017 introduction of Polaris. The airline says it’s really listening to its customers with 3 million surveys received.
The airport experience is being overhauled with gate upgrades beginning in 2020. “People wants comfort, space, and places to charge devices,” says Toby Enqvist, SVP & Chief Customer Officer. So United is doing just that with Cleveland as the test market and the O’Hare hub coming next.
They’re also deploying what they refer to as “Giant iPad” like digital kiosks specially designed for customers who don’t use the United App to assist them in self-rebooking their flights.
The biggest potential positive change affecting passengers regardless of the cabin is the ambitious goal of putting an end to gate-checked bags. By 2023, Enqvist pledges 80% of the mainline fleet will have enlarged overhead bins: allowing each customer to be able to store one full roller-board bag.
The 1 bag:1 passenger ratio will alleviate gate crowding, anxiety, and hasten the boarding process. On a 737-900, the larger bins result in an additional 65 carry-on bags.
Other customer-friendly changes include: upping snack choices from one to three and refreshing the often neglected United Express ERJ-135/145 fleet with new seats beginning in 2020 over the next two years.
JetBlue laid down the gauntlet for free inflight WiFi with Delta stating its desire to make it free in the not-to-distant future. Will United follow suit? Enqvist says United wants the same thing, but their connectivity providers need to offer more bandwidth and reliability.
Current uptake for the current product which only 10% of passengers currently use would only increase and slow down already slow networks markedly if free.
United slipped in a surprising premium customer perk leap-frogging its rival. A new partnership with Marriott for free bag delivery for Polaris Passengers travelling from Newark to London to five of their London locations.
Luc Bondar VP, Loyalty and President, MileagePlus says “This service will keep passengers from having passengers to immediately begin exploring London or doing business without having to go to the hotel first or schlep their bags around.” The plan is to expand this service to key premium markets.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
United knows Millennials and Generation Z, with their penchants for travel and experiences over purchasing material objects, are significant factors in the airline’s future.
Bondar says UA has enjoyed 130% growth in travellers aged 18-22 years old. Sustainability is important to them so as mentioned earlier, United is paying for the carbon offset of the first 25,000 of travellers in this niche. They have also been offering them 10% discounts off of tickets.
Sustainable and positive impact travel is an emerging trend as is increasingly aware in pro-social activism. “You want to be connected in a deeper way and engaged to the destination you’re travelling to,” says Sharon Grant VP and Chief Community Engagement Officer.
To answer this embrace this trend, United introduced Miles on a Mission at United.com/donate. MileagePlus members can donate their miles to causes they care about from a vetted list or even register one much like a GoFundMe or Kickstart campaign.
COMING TO A GALAXY NEAR U(NITED)
The Force was clearly with United who announced a marketing partnership with Disney’s Christmastime debut of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
When attendees returned from lunch, The Star Wars theme boomed throughout the auditorium, followed by a screening of the world premiere of the new Star Wars safety video complete with a cameo by the airline’s CEO. Clever Star Wars amenity kits were placed at each seat.
Though a model of The Rise of Skywalker 737-800 has been lightning up the AvGeek Twitterverse for a while, there’s been no word on when the striking black livery would adorn an actual aircraft. United confirms the aeroplane is being painted in Amarillo, Texas in a livery “which features imagery of famous Star Wars spacecraft, including the X-wing and TIE fighter starships.
The aircraft’s tail starkly displays a different coloured lightsaber – the weapon of the Jedi – against a black backdrop on each side, reflecting the two sides of the Force.”
While there are many special liveried jets, few extend the theme to the cabin and service. As Eva has done successfully with its Hello Kitty aircraft, United’s going all-in with their new plane’s onboard experience.
Star Wars-themed music will greet customers during the boarding process and commemorative pins will be given out throughout December coinciding with the movie’s premiere.
The aircraft’s cabin will also feature a special plaque reflecting United’s partnership with the coming blockbuster film.
Even the headrests will wear the emblems of the film’s duelling factions: the Resistance and the First Order. The Rise of Skywalker-themed amenity kits will be treasured by collectors and likely find their way quickly onto eBay.
Fans of the Star Wars franchise and #AvGeeks will be able to track The Rise of Skywalker-themed aircraft via FlightAware.
Past and future flights will be tacked on both desktop and mobile by entering the plane’s tail number. The stunning new livery will appear on FlightAware’s flight tracking maps as the X-Wing starship.
It’s not coincidental that United went with a Hollywood ending for its first media day.
The airline is clearly light years ahead of where it was just three years ago. Certainly many competitive battles remain, but it will be fascinating to see how United’s saga plays out over the coming years.
Follow Chris Sloan @Airchive on Twitter & @AirchiveSloan on Instagram