A recently released Zagat survey of 8,000 frequent flyers reveals a conundrum for the new United Airlines: passengers seem to love Continental and hate United.
Continental certainly does many things well. Their website and mobile app is slick and easy to use, their onboard catering is delicious, and their DIRECTV on many domestic routes offer passengers a much better IFE experience than a second-rate movie on United.
But United also does many things well. Their Economy Plus product offers industry-leading legroom in the forward portion of the economy cabin, their planes have been immaculately clean the last 18 months, their BOB is decent, and while while they may not have all the bells and whistles that Continental does in the IFE category, at least their movies and headsets are free.
More important for me (and presumably to the 8,000 "frequent flyers" who took the survey), United coddles their elites and is generally much more generous in compensating for travel hiccups than Continental. While United’s StarNet blocking continues to be a problem, UA’s upgrade scheme and Mileage Plus program are more generous than what Continental offers.
But United is still rebounding. While Continental was able to avoid bankruptcy after 9/11, United’s time in Chapter 11 did not bode well for the image of the carrier. Angry employees, cutbacks on amenities, and a scaling back of the route map took their toll on the United brand name. Perhaps that realization best explains why United will adopt Continental’s livery.
What can United do to improve this disparity? Combine the best of both carriers.
- Keep First Class on United’s 747-400s
- Keep Economy Plus on United and install it throughout the Continental fleet
- Add Channel 9 to Continental
- Use Continental’s flight kitchens for United catering
- Install DIRECTV on the A319/A320 United fleet (and the entire fleet if feasible)
Those are just a few suggestions and in a way, I think they are secondary concerns. With the new livery, United’s slate will be wiped clean in the eyes of many, especially those outside of America. First and foremost, if United is to achieve the high rankings Continental boasts, United must provide friendly, efficient, and caring service on each and every flight (as well as "clean, safe, and reliable" service as United CEO Jeff Smisek has promised). The problem with United now is that the airline is consistently inconsistent. One flight you can have a stellar crew and the next will be abysmal. This has to stop.
Saying this is one thing, insuring it happens is another. This is where strong leadership comes into play and if Smisek can lead by example and pay employees more than lip service (and former UA CEO Glen Tilton didn’t even do that most days, though his tenure at United was not all bad), morale and productivity will increase. It really is that simple.