United Runs a Great Business but Social Media Is Lacking

The United portion of the recent Star MegaDO was branded as a separate “UnitedDO,” given that so much happened near a major hub at Chicago O’Hare and their headquarters in Chicago. I and a few others have pointed out that we don’t really like the idea of a UnitedDO. It co-opts the MegaDO and in a way dilutes the specialness of those who paid for the charter flight. That said, I still got what I paid for, and I enjoyed the experience. I’ve been wanting to visit the Willis Tower since I was a kid!

image of Willis Tower

United went all-out to make us feel welcome. From events at their in-flight service training center to a tour of their Willis Tower headquarters, I enjoyed meeting with the people who make United the airline I continue to choose first when “it’s time to fly.”

Here are a few of my reflections on the three UnitedDO events, including where they succeeded and where I felt things fell short.

In-Flight Services Training Center

I was selected to go on the tour of United’s in-flight services training center in nearby Elk Grove, where we got to learn about how flight attendants prepare meals, stock a drink cart, and perform safety demonstrations. Some people pooh-poohed this. But from my perspective, de-icers and baggage loaders have nothing to do with my travel experience. I’d much rather learn about the front-line people who interact with me for the majority of my trip.

We started with an international BusinessFirst meal service, complete with the same place settings you would find in-flight. It was a treat to get to taste some of the food on the ground, where it is a bit fresher and hasn’t suffered from the re-heating or high altitude that can compromise food quality during travel.

image of chef with plates of food

The steak and cioppino I had were very good and comparable to restaurant cuisine. I appreciated that the food was served buffet style so we could treat ourselves to more than one dish. I actually had a very good steak. However, this didn’t help lose the stigma of airplane food. We were reminded that meals in the air are packaged as a kit and have to be reassembled when plated. The food up front actually looks very similar to an economy class meal in a metal tray, but it’s divided into several small buckets and assembled before it reaches your seat.

The flight attendants have more control over things like beverage service. United now offers pre-departure beverage service on all its flights in premium cabins, but a common complaint from passengers is that either this service is skipped entirely or flight attendants will try to speed through by pre-pouring only orange juice and water. Both the flight attendants present and their supervisor made a point to say that passengers should always be provided a beverage “of their choice.” If you don’t see that, you should complain. You won’t get compensation for something that trivial, but they do want the opportunity to correct improper procedures. The flight attendants agreed: if their colleagues are taking shortcuts, it reflects poorly on everyone.

As much as I like food, one of the best parts of this event for me was the safety demo, where we all loaded into a mock airplane (I was assigned a Global First seat in 1K, naturally…) I’ve actually started paying attention to these more often, even though I could recite some of them word-for-word. When you do mileage runs, it’s not unusual to find yourself on your fourth 737-900 that same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s two minutes of my time to show some respect to the person who will be serving me my meal and drinks for the next four hours.

I’ve always thought the actual safety equipment would be fun to try out. I didn’t get to inflate or slide down an emergency slide on this trip, but as I was up in front of the cabin presenting the safety instructions, it came time put on the life vest and show people how to inflate the vest. Guess what happened when I pulled the red cord? ;)

Nick, the flight attendant helping me, played it smooth and asked if I was having trouble breathing, but I’ve handled worse. Let me just say that you shouldn’t be afraid of sinking with one of those vests on!

He later continued to show us other aspects of his excellent in-flight service skills, including United’s new Global First turndown service (matching the competition from American) that they announced on Monday.

image of flight attendent in model cabin

Reception at the Hyatt Regency Chicago

This was a great opportunity to mingle with various United Airlines executives and employees. Although many of us were truly exhausted after only four hours of sleep the previous evening and an excruciating two-hour drive through Chicago traffic, the networking opportunities and food and drink were superb. It was great to see so many people there to talk with customers one-on-one.

Plus, I got my first introduction to Scott O’Leary, United’s Managing Director of Customer Solutions. I rarely see people with such enthusiasm for their job. Part concerned public relations specialist, part comedian, Scott was a great MC for the event on both days. He made everyone else seem stiff by comparison! But that was hardly fair to his colleagues. Most people were great, and Scott just stood out as a particularly welcome face every time he took the stage.

The only real complaint I had, as some of you may have noticed from my Twitter comments, was with meeting a member of United’s PR and Twitter team. Frankly, all I said was along the lines of, “Hi, I’m Scott and it’s good to meet you.” The other guy recognized me as the author of this blog, called me “the fuel dump guy,” and dismissed me as someone not worth talking to. No “hello.” No “thank you for flying United.”

Really? I can understand if United has an issue with me on a corporate level, but that’s just impolite. When was the last time I wrote about fuel dumps? Nine months ago. How many specific third strikes have I revealed? Zero. All I shared is what is already publicly available, and most readers I’ve spoken to in person agree that you aren’t going to get very far unless you do most of the work yourself. United’s own executives have commented that they can shut down fuel dumps whenever they want to. It just isn’t a big priority or worthwhile expense given all the other, more pressing tasks.

This encounter exemplifies much that is wrong with United’s social media presence. I’m a Premier 1K, and I have an audience. They can ignore me if they want to. But from my perspective this guy went one step further and was borderline hostile. So fine, I’ll continue chatting with American Airlines and give them plugs when I can, even if I don’t fly with them. But United Airlines has provided no incentive f0r me to promote the airline that actually receives the majority of my business and is the focus of a majority of my content.

Meeting with United Executives at Willis Tower

We headed back to downtown Chicago the next morning to meet with some United executives and managers in different departments. My first panel covered hubs and operations. Great people, good introductions to what they do, and some reasonable answers to our questions. It wasn’t the most exciting material, but I learned a few things and left satisfied.

My second panel covered social media and marketing. This started off embarrassing, I think more for United than for us. (I hear the panel on MileagePlus got very heated and probably did not reflect well on our group. Dan’s Deals has a good write-up in my opinion.) I was excited to learn more about United’s social media plans since they’ve been a relative afterthought in the past. UA Insider on FlyerTalk and MilePoint are okay …but sometimes it does take a long time to get answers to questions, even when they ask for questions. On Twitter, United is almost non-existent except to announce bland corporate memos like an upcoming travel waiver.

One of the first questions was about United’s social media plans since many airlines, including American, Delta, and US Airways (yes, that US Airways) manage to be more engaging with their customers. The response was pretty basic and defensive, which I’ll paraphrase as, “We haven’t had enough people or enough time to devote to it in the past, but we are working to improve our presence on Twitter.”

No numbers for new hires. No goals or timelines for improvement. No strategy or objectives for defining success. It sounded more like they were apologizing for the fact we weren’t happy, but that it was our problem and not something they had plans to fix. So that was the last time we had any questions for the social media manager, and she stood silent for the next 40 minutes while we talked with Mark Bergsrund, Senior Vice President of Marketing. (Seth is apparently more positive than I am about the quality of the answers we received. I still think it was all pretty vague.)

I will admit I was skeptical of Twitter, too, before I started this blog, but it has become my number two source of new traffic after Google. And I provided them with my example of an interaction with American’s Twitter team, who manage to find my tweets and respond to them even when I don’t include their formal Twitter handle. A status match to Executive Platinum helped, but I still credit their Twitter team’s outreach efforts that got me, a United Premier 1K, on my first American Airlines flight in six years. It is hard to resist a company that seems to genuinely want your business, and I just didn’t get the same impression from United.

No, instead United gets my business primarily because they offer an overall superior and know how to run a company. We heard a lot about that, too.

Mark wasn’t really there to talk about MileagePlus, but he addressed concerns about “tens-of-dollars” upgrades and non-elites getting better pricing for upgrades and Premier Accelerator. Frankly, I thought he was spot-on with his responses. TOD upgrades appear to me to be a glitch, and not one that is easily fixed. As for Premier Accelerator, well, duh, people stepping up from Platinum to 1K are going to get a far better return for their purchased miles than someone stepping up from general member to Silver. I have never been motivated to complain about TOD upgrades, and I support United’s pricing strategies for Premier Accelerator and other add-on services. Mistakes continue to occur not because United is trying to piss us off but because they are (1) integrating two major airlines, (2) upgrading areas that have suffered under-investment, and (3) experimenting with new services and ways to deliver those services. Those are all good explanations.

Mark and, later, Jeff Smisek, addressed some of these frustrations by pointing out that United makes no money when it cancels a flight due to adverse weather forecasts. United makes no money when boarding takes forever and the plane sits on the ground because people are brining more bags on board instead of paying to check them. United makes no money when it gives away a first class seat instead of giving it to someone willing to pay (and they recognize that properly pricing and marketing these paid upgrade opportunities is a way to keep elites happy even when it removes a complimentary upgrade). Overall I felt Jeff was being very direct and pragmatic in his answers.

At the end of the day, when United makes money, it can continue to operate, expanding its route network and improving the level of service it provides. If it loses money, it will have to make compromises. You may not like all of Jeff’s new changes, but you will probably have more to dislike if United has to declare bankruptcy again.

I commented above that United offers a better all-around product. And it does. American beats it in a few areas, particularly on-board catering (What can I say? I like food.) But United is very good at being, if not #1, then at least #2 in every category. I am a big fan of being #2. Competing to have the absolute best catering, the absolute best seats, the absolute best clubs, and the absolute best route network is going to drain your resources. You’ll have to make compromises in other areas. United has done the best, in my opinion, at finding a balance that rewards its customers and its investors, and for that I have to give them credit.

I just wish they would get with the 21st century and learn to use Twitter. By the time they get around to it, we’ll have all moved on to something else. :P

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://twitter.com/WanderngAramean Wandering Aramean

    You should have been in the Product discussion on Thursday where they had the new (as of July ’12) Director of Social Media speaking. She’s sharp and has put together a team which is already ramping up and expects to be fully running in a few weeks.

    • Scottrick

      I wish. It does seem we got some different information. I think we were in the same sessions but had the order reversed. I just get frustrated when people tell me things are getting “better” but don’t tell me how or when.

      • http://traveling.to/ Chris

        Indeed. The “bear with us” approach only works for so long. American’s been very proactive in communicating.

  • http://twitter.com/TravelSummary Travel Summary

    Can’t believe the United rep dismissed you like that, especially knowing you’re top-tier AND a blogger. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me switch loyalty if it’s an option.

  • George

    I know that you and some of the other bloggers like UA, but I disagree with you completely that they are the #1 or #2 carrier across many metrics (I’m assuming your ranking is relative to other domestic US carriers only). Their planes have generally old, dingy interiors without AVOD or power, and most lack WiFi. They have severely underinvested in their international long-haul fleet (e.g., no AVOD in coach), clubs, and airport service. Their on-time performance is good, but they’ve suffered several operational stumbles over the last few months and their employees’ satisfaction ranks at the bottom with AA. They do have an impressive network, and they certainly compete well on price for my typical routes, along with good award redemption options and availability. But, based on my last several trips on UA in the past year, I cannot even place them anywhere near the same level as DL, for example, and I have trouble understanding why (based on quality of product/in-flight service alone) a frequent traveler would continue to fly them.

    • Scottrick

      WiFi is something they’re working on, and I pointed out above that I think they’ve taken a better approach toward it. We should see it rolling out soon. It’s also not a priority for me. Everyone looks for something different in an airline, and WiFi is not even a consideration when I book travel. Similarly, AVOD is not a consideration for domestic flights. On the United flights that DO have it (pmCO planes), the first thing I do when I board is turn off the TV. On their renovated international fleet (a majority of planes now), UA has the best AVOD I’ve experienced. As for the other points…

      I’m limiting my assessment to major domestic carriers. That includes American, United, Delta, Alaska, Southwest, and US Airways. Of those, United and Delta have the largest networks,

  • http://www.theearlyairway.com/ The Early Air Way

    Agree with you, besides working to improve their services they should also focus on social media utilization, this will be beneficial for the company.