Attorneys General from Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have sent a letter to United Interim CEO Brett Hart demanding onboard service improvements including the return of free inflgiht meals and a second free checked bag on United’s non-stop service between Guam and Honolulu.
You can read the letter here (.pdf) and I want to break it down with commentary below.
Hafai Adia Mr. Hart:
At the outset, we would like to send our sincere thoughts to you and the entire United family for a speedy recovery of CEO Munoz. We write in response to Mr. Munoz’ letter both as customers of United and as the Attorneys General for the U.S. Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. With principles of teamwork, customer-focus, and innovative changes in mind, we hope to initiate a dialogue regarding how flight services on United’s Guam-Honolulu (GUM-HNL) route can be improved.
Let’s address the elephant in the room — United is the sole carrier serving the Guam to Honolulu route and thus it loses its greatest incentive to enhance its product offering. We must proceed from that baseline.
United has operated the GUM-HNL exclusive international route since its merger with Continental Airlines. The level of service provided by United on this route has never met the level of Continental, which operated in this region for over 40 years. Continental was deeply rooted in this Region and invested its people. This all changed after merger. We understood there would be changes, but the changes have been very disappointing. Service has declined beyond what we ever could have imagine [sic] by this merger. Customer satisfaction is at an all-time low, but these are changes that could–and should–be made to improve customer satisfaction on this route.
There is no question that United service has rapidly declined on the HNL-GUM route — but it is uninformed to blame “United” for this. Yes, United replaced the Continental name, but the new airline was led by corrupt Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek and his minions in Houston, not the “real” United in Chicago. It was thus a Continental decision, not a United decision to cut back the service levels on this route.
Our most significant concern is the elimination of free inlflight meal service on the eight hour flight. For over 40 years, the residents of our jurisdictions have had the benefit of free meal service to Honolulu.
Fair point. No one is entitled to a meal, but when you grow accustomed to something, particularly on a flight of eight hours, it does seem a kick in the pants to remove it, especially when fares are so high.
I flew Continental from Honolulu to Guam in 2011, and the service was like that of an international flight — with a hot meal service after takeoff, a mid-flight snack, and a pre-arrival snack. Not great food, but it certainly helps to pass the time and is better than nothing or a $10 cold sandwich from the buy-on-board menu.
Resuming this service, as provided for all other international flights would vastly improve customer satisfaction. United’s current policy resembles its North American domestic meal service policies, but the GUM-HNL route is not a domestic route. Guam is not a port of entry into the United States as all passengers traveling from Guam to Hawaii must clear US Immigration. Boarding passes bear this out with the designation “INT” clearly visible. Despite the designation, this route is treated as a domestic North American route where customers pay for meals and certain beverages. Many constituents find this practice to be unduly burdensome for a flight that is approximately eight hours. Providing meal service and a greater range of complimentary beverages would greatly improve your customers’ flight experience.
Guam-Honolulu is certainly a unique route in that it technically is a U.S. domestic flight and yet it is not — the “INT” designation does indeed appear on boarding passes and it is also true that if you hop on a flight from Guam to Honolulu you will have to clear U.S. Customs and Immigration upon arrival in Honolulu.
As with meal service, our residents find United’s baggage policy likewise unfairly restrictive. Customers are allowed one free checked bag and are charged $70 for a second bag. Many customers traveling to the mainland bring goods from Guam and the CNMI for family, and return with goods that cannot be obtained on the islands. Increasing the baggage allowance would give customers greater flexibility when traveling and increase their satisfaction with United’s service. Once again, this is a change in a decade long policy to the detriment of our residents.
United’s free baggage allowance on the Guam flight actually strengthens the argument that this is an international flight, because United allows zero free checked bags on domestic flights and one on most international flights.
I am very sympathetic to the concern for an increased baggage allowance when taking goods back and forth from Guam is so essential for so many travelers. To be clear, Guam has grocery stores and malls and is not that far from Japan, but stocking up on dramatically cheaper goods on the Mainland or in Hawaii is just a way of life.
Nevertheless, I would not call this “unfair” policy since it is consistent with other United international flights.
The inequities are even more glaring when compared to United’ international flight between Tokyo to Honolulu (NRT-HNL). Borth routes are approximately 7-8 hours in duration yet in contrast the international NRT-HNL provides free inflight meals and free baggage. How does United distinguish between two similar international flights of equal duration? The disparity in services is especially striking given that the fare for the Guam-Honolulu route is almost twice as much as the NRT-HNL route.
Again, the reason is competition: Honolulu to Tokyo is served by Hawaiian, Delta, JAL, and United — it is no surprise that fares are lower and service is better. Both NRT and GUM, though, only offer one free checked bag in economy class for passengers without status.
The service deficiencies identified above are just a few examples of what customers view as subpar service. Reliability of older planes that replaced Continental’s new fleet after merger, loss of free entertainment, insufficient flight crews, frequent mechanical breakdowns are other issues that deeply frustrate United’s Guam and CNMI customers.
Fair points — United has been operationally horrible since the merger. Still, although screens were pulled out of seats, there is streaming audio/video on-demand and wi-fi on these flights now: I’d call that upgrade.
We look upon your new tenure with hope and optimism. Your wonderful open letter to your customers provides an opportunity for greater dialogue. As Attorneys General, we greatly appreciate the door that you have opened, and we wholeheartedly encourage this dialogue to improve your customer’s experience. Working cooperatively we are confident that we can find innovative solutions that will not impose greater costs on customers. We optimistically look forward to your response.
Translation: obligatory political fluff
United has responded, “United Airlines confirms that it has received the letter. We are currently in the process of reviewing it” and I think United can quiet this controversy and earn a lot of goodwill by restoring free meal service on this flight.
Uncontested routes are difficult to understand and although we know that service levels and price have nothing to do the distance of the route — most travelers do not. Why does the 3hr Tokyo to Guam flight have a full meal service when the 8hr Honolulu to Guam does not? That’s a reasonable question for the average flyer.
I appreciate the Attorneys General looking out for their people and hope that United will show its commitment to the region in at least bringing back a free meal, but let’s face it — until Delta or Hawaiian decide to start service to Guam, United’s incentive to spend more on in-flight amenities would be nothing more than a money-losing gesture of goodwill.