Starting in February, United will reduce the number of flight attendants on some international flights by one and start pre-plating meals in business class.
In a leaked memo to flight attendants, VP John Slater defended this change and offered an explanation:
This decision was made after months of effort during which we listened to our customers and analyzed our competitors’ staffing levels. For example, we added an incremental position on the 777-300ER, when load factors warrant, matching American. However, on the 787-8 and -9, American operates with one fewer Flight Attendant than United. Similarly, Delta has one fewer Flight Attendant on some of its 777 and 767-400 flights. We’ll be matching their staffing level on these aircraft, along with removing one Flight Attendant in the economy cabin on international 757 routes to operate more efficiently and align with our peers.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with many of you who regularly bid the international premium cabin, I know this is difficult news. However, this is a necessary step for us to stay competitive and continue growing.
Basically, we are doing it because American and Delta do it. What a horrible reason for change. From what I hear, times are bad at American Airlines. That’s not the airline United should be emulating right now. Slater also asserts that “growth only works if we can do it efficiently.” That goes without saying, but a vague search for efficiency is not always best for the bottom line.
This change has Scott Kirby’s name written all over it. He’s United President and well-known for his bean counter mentality. This odd move, on both the plating side and staffing side, are directly related.
The Circle of Life in Polaris Business Class
Let me speak directly as a customer now. When United introduced its Polaris soft product in December 2016, it promised a whole new level of dining and service in international business class.
That simply has not been the case. What we have today, with few exceptions, is what we have had since the United-Continental merger in 2012. There is no more innovation. That is not always a bad thing; I have lauded several delicious meals on United this year. But many of the elements that made Polaris special have been eliminated. I’m talking about things like wine flights or the Bloody Mary and Mimosa carts or extra pillows. This wasn’t because passengers wanted to sleep; it was because alcohol consumption was far exceeding projections and customers were stealing bedding.
Look, overall I am very happy on United. The airline has boasted great operational performance and service onboard has been much better over the last year than in years’ past. And it’s not like any flight attendants will be furloughed. Quite the contrary, United intends to hire about 2,000 more FAs in 2019.
But my concern is that when you make meals less visually appealing, customers notice. Will meals be served in cafeteria-style casserole dishes now like on domestic flights? And if customers want more sleep onboard, why slow down the meal process by eliminating a FA in the galley? When you cut staffing during a time of record profits, FAs begin to lose trust. Customers feel that effect.
There is no reason that United cannot continue to grow without cutting its premium product. Saying one is necessary for the other is a false dichotomy. No single change in itself is ever enough to move the needle, but over time the compilation of changes actually radical transform the product, or in the case of United Polaris, bring it back to a pre-Polaris era.
images: United Airlines