“Proof. Not promise.”
It’s a phrase many of the 90,000 employees of United Airlines have heard numerous times from CEO Oscar Munoz and it represents the new spirit of United.
“When United wins, our customer wins,” Munoz said during United’s Global Media Day event in Chicago, Illinois, on Oct. 25.
Since Munoz took the helm of the airline in 2015, United has gone through a very intentional journey to fix issues and rebuild the trust of its employees and its customers.
During a listening tour, Munoz said he learned that the employees had a lot of passion, but many were frustrated. So, he and the executive team focused on the employees' concerns first and the result was improved performance and the beginning of a reliable operation, he said.
“Over the course of this journey, we’ve taken United from this sort of ‘what’s wrong’ to ‘what’s next,’” the CEO said. “It’s amazing what motivated employees, what the human dynamic does when people feel appreciated, listened to and part of the bigger team. We capture their discretionary effort.”
In 2018 the company announced its growth strategy and, the following year, assembled a team to identify very specific ways to focus and invest in the customer and the future of the airline. Munoz said it’s been a challenge to do that in an industry mostly focused on margins, but the drumbeat of the company has been customer investments and enhancements.
“This is a new United Airlines,” said United’s President Scott Kirby. “We’re reinvesting our profits back into the customer experience.”
For United customers, those investments include:
• Larger aircraft: narrow- and wide-bodied aircraft replacing regional jets (They said bigger airplanes means costs per seat go down.)
• Wi-Fi on planes
• Free live television
• New aircraft
• New, more user-friendly mobile app (United has the most downloaded airline app)
• Connection Saver: holding planes that were scheduled to arrive early so passengers don’t miss connecting flights
• 3-D seat map allowing customers to see and look around
“For years … airlines felt like they couldn’t invest in the product and the customer experience because they just couldn’t afford to. They were worried about survival and getting through the next year. We’re in such a different place today. We’re focused on the long term,” Kirby said.
The airline is also looking to lead what it coined the “sustainable revolution,” and not just with fuel-efficient aircraft.
Kirby said the airline is intentionally ridding itself of single-use plastic. Removing the shrink-wrap from the business-class amenity kit resulted in saving 16 tons of plastic, he said.
But the biggest impact will be with fuel.
United recently announced a $40 million investment in evolutionary technology, supporting companies and entities trying to create alternative, carbon-neutral fuels.
The company realized the "proof, not promise" had to be shown not just to customers but to its employees as well.
“We’re listening, learning and then leading,” said Kate Gebo, United’s executive vice president human resources and labor relations.
Part of that listening was taking over 20,000 flight attendants, who they say are “on stage” every day in airports around the globe, and bringing them to the airline’s Chicago hub to Backstage, a massive warehouse in downtown Chicago that was transformed into an engagement experience, not training.
“Our flights attendants and the human interaction and the way they connect people and United is the most important part of our product,” Kirby said.
The airline has held 28 sessions bringing in groups of 800 flight attendants at a time to talk about strategy, what’s on the minds of customers, and what can be done to make the experience better for the customer.
“This investment in our employees … is shaping the new United,” Gebo said.
The proof is in higher customer satisfaction service scores in overall flight experience and the highest employee satisfaction score since the company began doing the internal measurement.
Backstage has been so successful the airline extended the program for another six months and will welcome 15,000 customer service agents and call center representatives in 2020.
Flight attendants, who previously had to listen to complaints from passengers and apologize are now empowered with In the Moment Care, which allows them to report passenger concerns almost immediately and offer some relief on the spot such as travel credit, mileage, or snacks, so customers feel heard and feel the airline is taking action on their concern.
It also allows flight attendants to reward those customers who give up seats or do something nice for another passenger.
34,000 by 2022
In the next two years, the airline is looking to add 34,000 new jobs.
Gebo said this includes:
• 10,000 airport agents
• 8,000 flight attendants
• 4,000 pilots
• 2,000 maintenance technicians
The airline expects to get 3 million applications during this time, and it’s looking for people who are “passionate about service, and ready to shape the future of United.”
“They should be approachable, agile, dependable and … have skills and mindset to deliver great customer service,” said Gebo.
While it couldn’t provide a specific number, United’s corporate communications said the airline expects “modest growth” of employee hiring on Guam in 2020, mainly for airport operations. “Beyond that, it will be dependent upon our future flight-schedule plan at the Guam hub.”
With pilots in high demand, the airline also created Aviate, a new career path offering pilots the fastest plan to mainline flying. www.unitedaviate.com offers a recruitment and career progression program for upcoming pilots.
On Oct. 27, United launched the Bombardier CRJ550 in 15 markets in the United States. The aircraft is unlike anything in the regional aircraft space, offering 10 United first-class seats with a self-serve refreshment center for business customers, 20 Economy Plus seats and 20 economy seats.
The 50 new aircraft offer more legroom than any other 50-seat aircraft in United's fleet and more storage for carry-on baggage, so customers don't have to tag their bags at the gate and wait for the baggage when they land.
Guam residents who are accustomed to flying United Express planes to smaller cities in the U.S. from Chicago may experience the new aircraft.
The airline has also put more focus on Premium Plus seating in aircraft for travelers who don't have the budget to spend on the luxury Polaris flat-bed seating with the Saks Fifth Avenue bedding and Sunday Riley amenities and themed amenity kits.
Premium Plus seating is a "mid-tier" experience and United has committed to an 11% increase in premium seats for departures in 2020, said Executive Vice President/Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella.
He said the airline has also committed to more wide-bodied aircraft to accommodate more lie-flat seats. United will accelerate Polaris conversions in the new year and anticipates the addition of 780 seats will be 90% completed in 2020.
"United is the leading airline for business," Nocella said.
Guam ‘very good and very stable’
Guam is one of United’s 7 hubs and an important one for the airline.
“We’re really happy with how Guam is performing,” said Patrick Quayle, vice president international network. “We have a long history there and a long commitment to the island and to the community. The Guam franchise is very good and very stable for us,” he added.
Although flights to locations including Seoul, Cairns, and Hong Kong have stopped in recent years, Quayle said the airline has been increasing service in the region, for example, putting Boeing 777s back into service between Guam and Tokyo. “We added those aircraft back and elongated the time they’re there, and, if you’ll notice, we’ve added more flying to Japan with that aircraft.”
Quayle said United isn’t looking at anything outside of the existing routes at this time. Instead the airline has been focused on adding seats and adding more flights on existing routes.
As for the idea of a regular long-haul flight from the U.S. mainland to Guam, Quayle said, “Maybe at some time we’ll launch a nonstop, but that’s not something on the short term, on the radar right now.”
With many United Club lounges and United gates undergoing renovations and enhancements at airports across the country, United is planning “exciting improvements” at the Guam United Club Lounge that will “help to improve passenger experience for travelers in the region.”
As it begins a new decade and a new year, the airline is optimistic it will continue to provide proof of its commitment to its “Core 4” – safety, caring, efficiency and dependability – and ultimately change the way customers feel about the airline.
“It’s not just about connecting people from one place to another,” Munoz said. “It’s much more personal. There’s a much more human, strong dynamic about taking an individual through something that matters most to them.”