United Sent A Remarkable, Trolling Email To Customers

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.

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. You can say what you want about vaccine mandates but it’s true that United went through the pain early and is in a better position compared to its peers because of that “investment”.

  2. Only thing is it did happen to United, sort of, about 3 weeks ago if you count the SkyWest melt down. I know because I was there in Denver and my flight home was delayed 3 times and then canceled at 8:30pm. I was forced to overnight in Denver at my expense because who wants to spend half the night waiting in the customer service line that extends half way down the terminal? I guess United conveniently doesn’t mention that or does not count that.

  3. For truth in advertising, United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby should write, “We won’t be perfect, winter weather always impacts some flights, we will drag some random passengers off our aircraft and United break guitars.”

  4. I’ve seen UA offer reduced schedule options and even reduce flights during EWR runway construction over summer. May seem inconvenient but proactive and these times are unprecedented. Easy to arm chair QB each and every airline and CEO, but UA has kept itself out of the news and allowed Spirit, SW and even American to stay in headline rotation. Whether luck or proactive kudos to simply flying and landing without incident whenever possible.

  5. Let us not forget about their cancellation fees on award tickets that most everyone else dropped
    And their overpriced award tickets
    They continue to have blood on their hands/pax and far from innocent
    Did I say they are wildly overpriced most the time?
    No thanks

  6. One other thought comes to mind. Most major airlines have a “go team” (a trained group of staff and management) to be dispatched in case of a major accident. With all the recent increases in “Meltdowns” a new team should be developed and dispatched to assist with rebookings, hotels, meals, etc at all airline hubs (as staff offices may be located nearby) to help stranded passengers.

  7. We’ll see. I’ m flying UA between west coast and NYC over xmas/new years; hoping for the best, but expecting the worst!

  8. Flew United EWR-RDU 3-weeks ago today aboard mainline Airbus A320.

    Interior of the plane was **SPOTLESS** despite late arrival for incoming aircraft & quick turn.

    Service on the ground & inflight (although we did not eat or drink) was also very good.

    Wheelchairs at both ends of the trip for my partner, who has reduced mobility, were provided with minimal wait (with the attendant present & chair already positioned in jetbridge on arrival side in RDU).

    Except for 68 mins late departure, due to late arriving inbound aircraft, could NOT have asked for better – even if EWR Terminal C was crazy busy (& a bit chaotic) that late afternoon/early evening.

    Also of note:

    The gaspers (individual ventilation nozzles above our seats) were running at full blast during boarding, pre-departure dwell time & deplaning.

    And of course, while inflight.

    Have taken four flights over past 2.5 months (3 Delta Connection; 1 United mainline) NYC-GSO/RDU-NYC.

    1st flight back in late August LGA-GSO via Delta Connection:

    excellent (especially because plane was clean & ventilation on the ground & inflight was robust)

    3rd flight three weeks ago today, EWR-RDU via United mainline:

    Also excellent for reasons cited above

    Not nearly as impressive:

    2nd flight in late August & most recent flight 17 days ago, both via Delta Connection.

    To be clear, crews on the ground & inflight were excellent.

    Unfortunately, however, for both of those underwhelming Delta Connection flights, the aircraft were not nearly as clean as the two “excellent” flights noted above.

    But, even worse, neither flight had the type of robust ventilation on the ground or in the air, with the gaspers set at what seemed like the bare minimum even after repeated attempts to set at highest/full blast.

    Neither of those two OK, but far from excellent, flights seemed as “Delta-y” as I/we (August flights were solo) expected.

    Meanwhile, United’s flight 3-weeks ago did impress & would be the star of these 1st four, post-lockdown flights.

    United’s improvement pre-Covid19 pandemic, was also getting our attention.

    So, we were glad to see this continuing on our most recent flight!

    Finally, we found United’s counter agents in RDU, who assisted us with the cancellation of an international trip to be excellent, too.

    That **very pleasant** customer service experience seemed like the “old days” of airline travel when making changes/cancellations in the best possible way!

    If this keeps up…United just might overtake Delta as it replicates Gordon Bethune’s “worst to first” transformation of Continental back in the 1990s that led to it becoming NYC’s then top airline.

  9. Anyone that actually looks at data and not marketing BS can see that Delta has cancelled thousands fewer flights not just this year but last year than United.

    Delta’s on-time is considerably higher than United’s as well.

    The DOT keeps track of this stuff. It’s really not subject to anyone’s opinion.

  10. “Trolling” is a bit excessive. By your own admission Gary, everything stated in the email is a fact. Given the major airline-related headlines lately are mostly about disturbances and cancellations, combined with the holiday travel season upon us, there are no doubt plenty of hesitant passengers out there. From my perspective, it’s a well-intentioned email letting potential customers know that United is in a better operation position than it’s competition.

    By Kirby’s own admission, it will be interesting to see how well those operations continue when the first major winter storm hit’s O’Hare.

  11. Every single Airlines in US is bad but unfortunately writers of such articles get paid and they conveniently leave out those parts and keep on praising airlines.

  12. I had a 40 minute delay on a EWR-IAD flight (which normally takes 45-60 min) just yesterday… I say this as a 1K who’s locked into a decaying system because I typically only use it for international travel but this just feels like they’re trolling themselves. “We can’t possibly be worse because we’re already so bad at domestic travel!”

  13. Kirby is a fool and playing Russian roulette. Yes, it’s possible United skates by on this. But if some massive weather event hits the east coast, Dulles and Newark going down might just be enough to give United their own meltdown.

    This is dangerously opportunistic PR that’s capable of coming back and biting Kirby in the ass.

  14. I didn’t finish reading what Howard wrote because it was too too long, but did he try to get a job at United?

  15. @Tim Dunn, not sure I’d be so proud of Delta’s cancelations. We all know they will delay a flight for hours or even overnight in order to avoid a cancelation. That’s not a great customer experience when you’re at the receiving end. Better to cancel and rebook and some reasonable point.

    United is making all the right moves and the Delta is breaking into a sweat for the first time in a while. It just feels like the two airlines are on very different trajectories right now.

  16. All is not peaches and cream on Uniteds mandate front! Don’t be surprised by seemingly low turbulence now. There are thousands of United and United ground staff waiting to stand together against mandate tyranny. Even those who have have chosen to be vaccinated! Hold on and buckle up Scot Curby…The captain has turned on the seat belt sign!

  17. Been there,
    the hype about Delta’s holiday cancellations was just that – hype.
    They cancelled double digit percentages of flights on the holiday and then recovered very quickly in the following days.
    Also, Delta was seat blocking during every one of the holiday cancellation periods so the number of passengers was automatically 30% less than it could be today; Delta resolved its Easter cancellations by removing holiday cancellations.
    Including Delta’s cancellations in what has happened this summer is nothing short of trying to hypocritically drag anyone else into the argument to justify the cancellations that other carriers are doing on a regular basis.

    The statistics don’t lie. If United mainline never had a meltdown, then how is that they have had more cancellations on both the absolute number (which is hard to do since United flies a fraction of the mainline flights that Delta does since United outsources more than half of its domestic departures to regional carriers – FACT) and the percentage.
    All Kirby’s bloviating does is show that United runs a worse operation on a regular basis than a number of other airlines including Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian because those airlines have MUCH LOWER rates of cancellation.
    And the most damning evidence of how poorly United runs its operation is the fact that its DOT consumer complaint ratio is consistently one of the lowest among US airlines – far lower than Southwest, Delta, or American. If United is doing as good of a job as people think they are doing, why do so many more people complain about them than they do about other airlines?

    When the United network cancels more flights than American and Southwest even in months when the latter two airlines have massive public meltdowns, United is simply not being honest with you.

    The data is available for your perusal at the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Reports site.

    Scott Kirby’s competitive nature becomes pathological when he distorts the truth of cancellations which he knows.
    United is not and never has been the best operator in the US in any metric the DOT measures.

  18. Vaccine mandates are negatively impacting all sectors. Are we not allowed to say this outright?

  19. BS. My United flight this week from LAS to at EWR took 2.5 hours from landing to unloading us at the gate and another 30 mins for the luggage to come out.

  20. If United flights get cancelled or delayed because of weather, Kirby can easily argue that weather is never the fault of any airline. If for example Skywest experiences a meltdown, Kirby can argue that what goes on at Skywest is not United’s fault since United has no ownership in Skywest.

  21. Like United didn’t contract with any regional airlines and didn’t know about the runway closure at Newark for reconstruction that reduced capacity and led to cancellations and delays. Just as United has multiple hubs in delay-prone airports which could have easily been changed in 40 years of deregulation.

    Of course United has ownership of its entire operation just as every other airline does.

    And United has still cancelled more MAINLINE flights than Delta and a higher percentage than a number of other airlines – in addition to posting worse statistics in just about every category which the DOT measures even in months when other airlines were supposedly having “meltdowns.”

    It even United mainline – without regional carriers – underperforms the mainline operations of carriers that supposedly experienced “meltdowns” then the only conclusion is that United’s regular operation is much less reliable regardless of what Kirby thinks or says.

  22. I used to avoid United like the plague but now live in Denver and have flown them 12 times this year. I had no bad experiences and several good ones.

  23. Brave Heart, yes that’s right! God bless those that chosen to take a stand to keep our country free of tyrannical mandates etc. This is about a much bigger picture then traveling for the holidays etc. We are grateful for the employees, citizens, fellow Americans & Patriots who sacrifice & stand for freedom!

  24. The DOT finally released their statistics for August 2021 on-time and cancellations.
    United’s on-time was 15.4 percentage points below Delta’s and 4 percentage points below American.
    United’s on-time was closer to Southwest’s, the bottom of the big 4, than American and way below Delta.
    United cancelled more mainline flights than Delta cancelled on mainline and regional carriers combined – 10 times more United mainline than Delta mainline – and Delta runs a far larger mainline operation because they don’t outsource such huge numbers of domestic flights.

    United’s customer complaint ratio is the worst of the big 4 – almost 5x worse that Delta which was the best of the big 4.

    Don’t believe Kirby’s non-sense. If United thinks other airlines has suffered from meltdowns, they need to explain why their operation is consistently worse than a good chunk of the rest of the big 4, including American which they love to trash.

  25. I consider myself very fortunate that my parents (I’m now 81) did not balk at the mid-20th century Salk vaccine for infantile paralysis (a/k/a polio) for me. Sadly, today’s widely-obnoxious objections to treating the Corona virus shamefully proves the truth in the saying: “You can’t fix stupid”.

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