Has United’s President Done a 180, Started Caring About Customer Experience?

United Airlines President Scott Kirby, who has previously served as President of American Airlines (and US Airways and America West before that), is the most ‘by the numbers’ executive in the airline industry today. I’ve called him a destroyer of airlines.

Historically if he couldn’t see revenue directly attached to a customer experience initiative at the margin he did not see any reason to invest in that experience. For instance at US Airways he’s said that it wasn’t until he could actually see people booking away from the airline due to lack of internet — actually choosing to fly someone else — that US Airways pulled the trigger in outfitting their planes with internet. They had stayed away from internet for years because they didn’t believe it was a money maker, until they found out not having it was a money loser.

Under his leadership US Airways started charging for water, and eliminated frequent flyer elite bonuses. He had to walk back both changes. As head of US Airways his airline actually removed seat power from planes to save on costs. He gutted American Airlines meal service in September 2014, moving it closer to his legacy US Airways standard, but had to walk that back, too.

Kirby claimed Basic Economy would be a billion dollar idea. When he moved over to United he revamped their Basic Economy fares to be more draconian, eliminating carry on bags as he had planned to do at American before he left. The roll out lost $100 million, attributing it to American not yet doing the same thing. They kept at it anyway. Now American is giving up carry on restrictions from basic economy fares. Delta’s President says these restrictions are costing United money.

United Boeing 777-300ER Economy

The inimitable Brian Sumers interviews Scott Kirby for Skift and some interesting, out of character statements come out.

Kirby walks back his claim that United’s product investment is about ‘keeping up with the joneses’, investing in product so that they can offer what their competitors offer, rather than focusing obsessively on what customers want.

And he actually says that brand matters to an airline’s success in the long run and so more than what’s in the spreadsheet matters.

It’s hard to find effects of those things in the short term, but in the long term, I believe it matters. In the long term you can look at airlines like Southwest who’ve had a history of good customer experience and perception and they drive superior results. We have a strong belief that even though we can’t put it in a spreadsheet and say how people feel about this one thing is going to show up in the next earnings report, we have a core belief that it does matter in the long term and that it’s tables stakes now to change the perception. It’s not true just at United, but certainly for us, it’s true at United.

Kirby says he wants to “chang[e] how people feel when they fly United” beyond “just the hard metrics” and that it was the David Dao incident that served as an inflection point for him, “how perception and opinion matter so much and how much more quickly something can go viral.”

He thinks that their Polaris business class “is the best in class” where it’s been rolled out, the best “across the Atlantic, flying to South America, flying in most Asian markets” which is downright silly.

  • It’s direct aisle access fully flat business class, while taking up less space than American’s seats. On planes with the new seat it’s no longer a reason to actively avoid United business class, but it’s not better than American’s seats, or Air France’s new seat, or Delta’s new suite with doors. Their business class isn’t better than EVA Air or Cathay Pacific.

  • The United soft product in business class isn’t better than Singapore’s, Cathay’s, Austrian’s, Turkish, or ANA’s.

However in May brought back meal service on 3 hour domestic flights mere weeks after eliminating it, and despite myriad cuts to the Polaris soft product they continue to add the seats to more planes and open the country’s best business class lounges.

United Polaris Business Class

Is Scott Kirby just talking a good game, or has he actually reversed course on his history as an airline executive?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Actions speak louder than words. Let’s see what gets implemented on board the planes before declaring Kirby now cares about customer experience.

  2. Scott Kirby can dramatically improve the customer experience overnight by resigning and promising to never get involved in the airline industry ever again.

  3. Remember when Oscar Munoz took over at United and promised a whole bunch of changes? AFAIK the only change that was actually implemented was switching the coffee brands. Talk is cheap.

  4. When he decides to restore meal service on the 8 hour HNL-GUM leg, I’ll start paying attention. When he stops removing in seat video screens I’ll start believing.

  5. When he restores meal service to the 8 hour HNL-GUM route, I’ll start paying attention to the talk things are improving.

    When he stops putting out planes with no in seat video, I’ll start believing he’s a changed man.

  6. Have I mentioned how much I hate it when this site stalls at posting comments long enough to make me think it never went through (>1 minute) so I post another one only two find that I now have two comments posted and I wind up looking like a dupe idiot?

  7. The Polaris product is mediocre at best. Metrics: great flight crews: NO..their training was less than a day for this highly touted product;; Presentation: NO. Meals are served in a hurry and some flight attendants did not know the Peligrino was actually sparkling water and not white wine. attendants are in a hurry to relax, it appears. Soft Products: at its initiation, the attendants acutally offered sheets, pillows etc, and helped make up the seat..THis is long gone. One must agggressively ask for them early as they do not stock sufficient quantities for the seats sold
    Music: United had, at least to several months ago, removed music from its long haul flights. THe attendants stated that it cost too much money.They have music videos.

    Much more could be said, but the difference between their advertisements and actual products is immense. All they need to do is read the report from secret flyers.

  8. UA needs to soften the change policy and the checked bag fee to get some real attention about improving the customer experience. Look at what just these two items have done for SWA.
    I flew on a UA BOS-SFO 777 the other day, and they announced that they would not board group 4 until they had 50 gate checked bags! WTF?

  9. If United is serious Kirby should take a long hard look at their offerings. I don’t have much choice in airlines because of where I live (I am 1k). I have seen some improvements on some flights but overall they have a long way to go. The walkbacks and then reinstatement on some things irritate me and Polaris roll-out has been a disaster although where you get the whole deal, it is good. Why don’t they invite a large number of their frequent flyers to Chicago and find out what we really think?

  10. The US Airways Management Cancer is never gone from this industry.

    It just remains dormant until scrutiny has passed.

  11. As a AA ExPlat 3MM’er I got fed up after an abysmal 2017 on AA and switched to UA on a 1K challenge / match. So far, after 80K PQM’s in 2018, the overall experience, with one exception, is much better than AA. UA TATL hard product, apart from Polaris seats (which I haven’t experienced) is inferior to AA. Soft product better. ORD Polaris lounge is outstanding, as was the stellar service (Thank You, Grace B). Can’t really tell much difference between hard product domestic. Domestic soft product on UA is better for the most part, although the Stroopwaffels on UA seem to be disappearing (sad). My inclination is to keep my spend and miles on UA for 2019 unless they figure how to muck it up between now and end of year.

  12. I wonder if he simply realized that there is a point where your airline’s service becomes a punchline on TV jokes, and that is when it becomes important to the bottom line to invest something to improve your brand. And if at the same time your FFs notice your lack of reliability and your quality has fallen behind the competition, that is a double whammy. Good for UA fixing the reliability. I’m not sure the quality has improved much yet, since the speed of the Polaris rollout is so slow, but then UA does not charge a premium compared to its competitors, either. It usually seems to me to have the cheapest international business class among the majors, and that is why I buy it.

  13. Kirby will never, ever, change. He will say whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear but his actions usually contradict him.

    He’s a very clever man because he has more money than most of us put together but he’s also full of ****.

    Kirby only knows how to be Kirby and anyone hoping for a “road to Damascus” moment from him is only deluding themselves.

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