Uniting airlines

I don’t envy anybody in the airline business. There is so much to do right, and the costs of doing things wrong can be incalculably high. Required capital investments are immense, and the regulatory framework is both complex and costly. Yet the people I’ve met in the business tend to be dedicated professionals who care about serving people, and not just about making a buck or putting in time. And the few bad experiences I’ve had are so anomalous that I’m inclined to disregard them. So, on the whole, I cut them all some slack.

By now I have close to a million miles with United, which is now the largest airline in the world, thanks to its merger with Continental. As it happens I’m sitting in a Continental lounge right now, though I’ll be flying in a couple hours to Salt Lake City on Delta. My original flights with United (from Boston through Chicago) were delayed by snow (yes, it’s snowing here, on the first day of Spring). The Continental club lounge is available so here I sit. For what it’s worth, the Continental lounge is nicer than United’s. In fact, pretty much everything about Continental is nicer, by a small margin. That’s a pat on Continental’s back, rather than a knock on United, which I’ve come to regard with some affection over many years of flying with them. One reason for all that flying is that they made lifetime membership in their club lounge available for a good price two decades ago, and that’s been a tie-breaker for us — in United’s favor — ever since. (Sadly, the offer was discontinued.)

The merger is moving slowly. Most of both airlines’ planes now say United on the side and keep the Continental globe symbol on the tail. (Minimal paint jobs for both, basically.) But the operations are still separate, which in some ways they have to be, since in many locations they occupy separate airport terminals. Their computer systems are also surely different and hard to merge. But, while there is some time left before the merger completes, I thought I’d put out a few public suggestions for both airlines as they gradually become one. Here goes:

  1. Keep Channel 9. That’s the United audio channel that carries cockpit air traffic audio. Like a lot of frequent fliers, aviation is a passion of mine, and listening in on that chatter is a familiar, comforting and engaging experience. Sharing it with passengers is up to the pilots, and I always go out of my way to thank the pilots who choose to share the channel with passengers. I’ve met many other passengers over the years who also love the service. In many cases these passengers are either current or former pilots themselves. Of course it’s not necessary to keep it on that same audio channel; but at least make it available.
  2. Make seat choices easier online. Say what kind of airplane the flight takes, and whether or not there are actually windows by the window seat (on some planes there are some window seats with blank walls). Consider providing links to SeatExpert or SeatGuru.
  3. Allow more conditional choices for upgrades. I like window seats on the shaded side of the plane, and usually choose those seats with great care. So, for example on a United 777, where all the premium coach seating with extra legroom is in seats over the wing. I’m willing to sit in the back with less legroom, just to have an unobstructed view out the window. But often I’ll get an automatic upgrade (as a frequent flyer) to a business class seat that is either an aisle seat or a window seat on the sunny side of the plane, where the view is never as good. In those cases I’ll usually prefer to stay in coach.
  4. Provide Internet connectivity by wi-fi. Put it on all but the small short-haul planes.
  5. Power outlets are nice too. Some airlines have them for all seats. United should be one of them.
  6. The DirectTV system on some Continental planes is nice. So is the completely different system on some other Continental planes (one I flew from Houston to Frankfurt had a zillion movies, but no easy way to navigate all the choices). Whatever you standardize on, make it relatively open to future improvements. And make the headset plugs standard 1/8″ ones, so passengers can use their own headsets.
  7. Get apps going on Android, iPhone and other handheld devices. Continental has some now. United doesn’t yet, though it does now have the paperless boarding pass.
  8. Get Jeff Smisek to cut a new merger progress announcement to run for passengers. The old one has been talking about “changes in the coming months” for about a year now.
  9. In the lounges, upgrade the food, or provide better food you charge for (like you do for drinks at the bar). Right now in the Continental President’s club, there are apples, three kinds of chips in bags, bottom-quality shrink-wrapped cheeses and tiny plastic-wrapped sesame crackers. The United clubs will have the same apples, plus maybe the same crackers and chips, and some nut/candy mixes in dispensers. This Continental club doesn’t have an espresso/cappuccino machine, while United club at the same airport does. (And it’s a much better model than the awful one they had for a decade or more.) Meanwhile at Star Alliance lounges, and in lounges of international airlines such as Scandinavian, there will be a spread of sandwich makings, pastries, fresh baked breads and other good stuff. United and Continental charge a lot for the lounges, yet don’t allow food to be brought in. So at least offer something more than the minimal, food-wise. Free wi-fi in the lounges is also cool. Both United and Continental offer it, but Continental makes it simple: it’s just there, a free open access point. United’s is a complicated sign-on to T-Mobile.
  10. Go back to Continental’s simple and straightforward rules for device use on planes. United’s old rules were ambiguous, all-text and hard to read. Continental had little grapics that showed the allowed devices. That’s what persists in the current (March) Hemispheres magazine is the United text. You almost need to be a lawyer to make sense of this line here: “Any voice, audio, video or other photography (motion or still), recording while on any United Airlines aircraft is strictly prohibited, except to the extent specifically permitted by United Airlines.” Only twice in my many flights on United have I been told not to shoot pictures out the window from altitude, and in the second case the head flight attendant apologized later and offered me a bottle of wine for my trouble. From what I understand, photography is specifically permitted, provided it is not of other people or equipment inside the plane. I’ve also been told “It’s at the pilot’s discretion.” Whatever the rules are, the old Continental ones were much better, and unambiguous.
  11. Email receipts for onboard charges. This especially goes for ones where promos are involved and one can’t tell otherwise if the promo discount went through. For example, Chase bank customers were supposed to get $2 off on the $6 charge for using a Chase bank card to pay for watching DirectTV on the flight I took two Thursdays ago from Boston to Houston. Did I get the discount? I still don’t know.
  12. On the personal video screens, provide flight maps with travel data such as time to destination and altitude. Love those, especially when they aren’t interrupted with duty-free promos on international flights.
  13. Avoid lock-ins with proprietary partners. Example: Zune on United: http://www.zune.net/united. Right now over half of the devices being used in this lounge are non-PCs (iPads, Androids, Macs, etc.). Why leave those people out? And, of course, Zune is a dead platform walking.

Anyway, that’s a quick brain dump in the midst of other stuff, encouraged by conversation with other passengers here. I’m looking forward to seeing how things go.


4 comments

  1. Andy Shaindlin’s avatar

    Hi Doc – First, let me say I enjoy the aerial photography in your Flickr stream.

    Second, as a UAL customer, it’s funny for me to see someone else admit that they have “at least some affection” for United. Commercial flight is like dining hall food: Even though it’s actually fine, all things considered, you are obligated by social contract to criticize it.

    I actually enjoy the overall experience of flying around to different places, and elite status on a major carrier is the main factor that makes the difference between me a) tolerating flying as a dehumanizing experience versus b) being recognized for repeat business, and being treated well by hard-working folks with jobs that are almost *designed* to attract criticism from customers.

    As for your CO-UA suggestions, I’ll go with #2 and #6 from the list above. Maybe I’ll see you en route some time.

  2. John P’s avatar

    Greatly enjoyed your presentation at Kynetx Impact conference. Good suggestions for airlines.

  3. Dave Taht’s avatar

    having just “survived” a red-eye flight, I have two suggestions for airports…

    Keep at LEAST 1 bar/restuarant open after 10:30PM. I can’t imagine why the entire airport shuts down at that hour, but there are at least usually enough bored customers after hours to keep one place open.

    I wouldn’t mind it if there was more music and live entertainment in airports, in general. It would lend character to an otherwise brand-saturating, overpriced, boring, waiting experience.

  4. Anthony Milano’s avatar

    That will be the day.

    Maybe I will reminisce about this article while I’m sitting in first class sipping a champagne cocktail and say maybe I won’t have to fly anymore, beam me up Scotti.

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