Delta’s operation melted down over last year’s holidays. Southwest has melted down over lack of crew. American melted down over the summer without enough pilots and then at the end of October without enough flight attendants. And now everyone’s worried about holiday travel with the government requiring airlines to have their employees vaccinated – with deadlines coming up.
United Airlines sent out a remarkable email, both for its candor and effectiveness but also for the way it brutally subtweeted these competitors. Under CEO Scott Kirby’s signature, United obliquely references news of airline meltdowns and says in effect ‘this won’t happen to us.’
I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks and I know you’re eager to return to travel — especially around the holidays. Many of you have asked if you can book with confidence on United this holiday season. And the short answer is, yes you can!
That’s because we’ve taken a unique approach to the complexity of rebuilding an airline in the midst of a pandemic
Kirby then goes on to list reasons why United’s operation will be more resilient,
- They brought their schedule back more slowly. United’s operation is more focused on international than competitors, which has come back more slowly. And their domestic operations are strongest when they’re feeding that international, so domestic too makes sense to bring back more slowly. United frames it as a strategic choice for reliability, and even a moral choice to make “”sure we do the right thing for customers and if that means sacrificing some possible short-term profits to ensure a reliable operation, then so be it.”
- They kept their pilots flying rather than doing furloughs or paying pilots to stay home. The deal they did with pilots also means giving them first class seats that used to go to upgrades.
- Fewer inflight incidents they’re better at de-escalating passenger situations than other airlines, they suggest. I chalk that up to their response to David Dao being dragged off a United Express flight four years ago.
- Better technology I give them that they have the best app, and they highlight Connection Saver so maybe a flight will be held for you especially at the end of the day in the event of a slight delay.
- Eliminating change fees United did go first with this, but not on basic economy fares and their basic economy is the most draconian. Initially the ability to use travel credits was limited because if you applied them to a cheaper itinerary you’d lose the difference. When other airlines didn’t go along with this (it would have prevented customers from repricing itineraries when fares dropped) they followed the rest of the industry.
- THey’re already through their vaccine requirement. They save this one for lower on the list, and note that “some don’t support vaccine requirements, including some of our people and some of you receiving this note” but then says the people who disagree with them are wrong. What’s important is that employees leaving, or being terminated, or a new process for tracking exempt employees who test weekly to determine whether they’re eligible to work, isn’t likely to hamper their holiday operations.
I wonder though if United is tempting fate staking out this position that their operation will not fail, the way others have? It’s not as though, during normal non-pandemic times, United hasn’t had its share of IT glitches (though those are mostly five years in the past).
Perhaps United knows this and hedges at the end, “We won’t be perfect and winter weather always impacts some flights” but it’s still a remarkable email because they are making arguments that are largely true and actually distinguish them from competitors who go unnamed, but this email is clearly timed and prompted by recent unpleasantness experienced by other carriers.