10 Changes We’d Like to See from United’s New CEO

Sep 9, 2015

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United’s outgoing CEO left behind an airline with much need for improvement. TPG Editor-in-Chief (and very frequent United flyer) Zach Honig shares our UA wish list. I hope the new CEO is up to the task.

After the market closed yesterday, United announced that former CEO Jeff Smisek and other executives had “resigned” following a recent federal investigation. And that’s all I’ll say about Jeff — it’s time to look forward.

The new man in charge is Oscar Munoz, who was appointed President and CEO the same day. Munoz hails from CSX, a rail logistics corporation, so while you might assume he’ll be thinking of United passengers as cargo with Twitter accounts, let’s hope his introductory comment about improving the passenger experience actually materializes.

So, without further ado, here’s our list of 10 changes we’d like to see from the airline’s new head honcho:

A screenshot from United's flight attendant promo video.
A screenshot from United’s flight attendant promo video. Image courtesy of United.

1. A culture of friendly frontline employees — Some United flight attendants love their jobs, and it shows. But too many do not, offering in-flight service that reflects resentment rather than gratitude. Airline staffers appear stressed throughout the system, so their quality of life may need to improve before passengers notice an improvement.

2. No more international first classUnited’s Global First is a joke. The seat is inferior to American Airlines’ 777-300ER business class, and catering and service are identical to the BusinessFirst cabin just behind. More often than not, non-revenue passengers and upgraded customers fill those seats, giving United little incentive to improve. UA should stop selling international first immediately, instead offering front-cabin seats to top-tier elites in business class, with a goal of eliminating the product entirely as soon as possible.

United's embarrassing 8-across business class.
United’s embarrassing 8-across business class.

3. A competitive business-class seat — In lieu of improving first class, United should focus all of its premium cabin on BusinessFirst. AA’s reverse-herringbone seats would be the best pick as a replacement, though the business seat installed on ex-Continental aircraft and United’s Dreamliners will work for the time being. Whatever happens, those 8-across business seats NEED TO GO.

4. Decent meals — To United’s credit, the airline has been working to refresh its in-flight catering in both economy and premium cabins. But there’s still a ton of room for improvement. Foreign carriers may always have the advantage here, since high-quality food requires an investment that US shareholders may not want to swallow (unless they’re flying United, of course).

5. Consistent in-flight Wi-Fi — Many United flights now offer Wi-Fi, which is fantastic, but the airline is currently supporting three vastly different technologies (and service providers), resulting in performance inconsistencies, unusable Gogo subscriptions and frequent downtime. Pick one provider and stick with it.

United Newark Gate
A refreshed United gate at Newark Airport.

6. More terminal updates — The airline has already begun rolling out refreshed gates at Newark airport, and refurbs at other airports, such as Boston and SFO, are well underway. Still, much work remains, and the rollout pace is unreasonably slow.

7. Better lounges — United’s latest Club lounge design has already made an appearance in cities like Boston, Chicago and San Diego, but they’re still a far cry from Amex’s Centurion Lounge. Considering that annual memberships cost up to $550, United should invest significantly in improving its premium product on the ground as well.

8. A website that works — This month, United launched a flashy new website, that, naturally, is filled with bugs. Award searchability took a hit, but the website was completely offline for much of yesterday, with the airline citing “overwhelming demand.” Fortunately, the move prompted a temporary return of United’s old site, which, while not nearly as “cutting-edge,” is familiar and functional.

United's social responses have spiraled out of control.
United’s social responses have spiraled out of control.

9. Investments in social media — United’s currently doing far more harm than good when it comes to social media. Robotic responses are the norm, with the airline posting mismatched replies even on TPG’s own Facebook posts. Twitter response delays have become embarrassingly lengthy, too.

10. A commitment to customer service — While a “customer is always right” approach may make it difficult for an airline to operate efficiently, United needs to remove the perception that passengers are simply a necessary evil. It’s impossible for an airline to keep everyone happy, but if United screws up, it should have the infrastructure in place to correct the situation quickly, or at least avoid recurring issues.

Which improvements do you think United should prioritize?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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