United Airlines President Scott Kirby has pledged a greater emphasis on the quality of the passenger experience after many years of shunning such a viewpoint. But what makes for a quality experience?
Speaking at the Morgan Stanley 7th Annual Laguna Conference, Kirby said that “more and more” United must be “competing on quality instead of just schedule and price.” That’s a startling confession from a man who has historically said that the key is market share alone and that proactive investments in quality do not make financial sense.
But what does quality look like? Before I address that question, let me make a number of musings:
- Customers love the stroopwafels and biscoff cookies onboard
- United’s no carry-on bag policy with Basic Economy fares is the most restrictive amongst U.S. legacy carriers
- United’s Polaris Lounge network has set the tone for international business class lounges in the USA
- Showers have been removed from United Clubs while American and Delta maintain them
- New “ConnectionSaver” technology is already working well
- Wi-Fi onboard is expensive and often does not work, making the concept of free Wi-Fi for all laugable
- Enlarging the Polaris business class cabin on the 767-300 is a shrewd business move
- Flight attendant staffing and bonus cuts have hurt morale and angered passengers
- The new MileagePlus program will be a welcome change for most travelers, but a big blow to those frequent travelers who seek premium redemptions
Do you see a pattern above? I won’t go so far as to say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, but United has sent very mixed signals on quality.
Which leads me to question what Kirby means when he says quality. Delta is held up as the poster-child of a U.S. carrier investing in quality. But can seat-back screens and bellinis really be the key to Delta’s success? Or is it due to more fundamental issues less weather-prone hubs and declaring bankruptcy at the perfect time? What makes Delta a quality carrier when they have the worst loyalty program? Are flight attendants really always smiling?
Quality is a subjective term. For me, it is genuine and hospitable service, edible food, great bedding, functioning wi-fi, and a loyalty program that offers great value for premium cabin redemptions. You may have a different conception of what quality is. The most important question, though, is how Kirby views quality.
Unlike the Kirby detractors who dismiss him as simply a beancounter, I recognize that he’s a very smart man who has objectively performed very well at United based upon growth and profit figures. His aggressive expansion has been a gamble that has paid off. Thus, I have great respect for him.
I do take Kirby’s new emphasis on quality seriously. I just wonder what exactly he means by that word. Time will tell…