United Wants to Be the Friendly Skies Again — Without People That Are Actually Friendly

United’s Twitter account sent me a direct message yesterday flagging the New York Times piece about their new advertising campaign that was supposed to harken back to the classic slogan “fly the friendly skies.”

The campaign, though, doesn’t actually speak the iconic phrase and words appear only briefly on screen — it doesn’t talk about its people being friendly. It talks about its features being friendly. It has lots of flights, and that’s friendly.

United is now telling travelers it is everything from “legroom friendly” and “online friendly” to “shut-eye friendly” and “EWR friendly,” which refers to the hub of Continental Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport, which United inherited when the two airlines merged in 2010 to create the world’s largest carrier in terms of passenger traffic.

That’s a crucial distinction, because nobody would believe a campaign that actually harkened back to ‘fly the friendly skies.’ United could never run this ad again:

Instead, you get this:

United’s campaign talks about its features being good, but doesn’t really distinguish those features from its competitors in a meaningful way. I don’t think Matt Damon’s voiceovers are as good as Gene Hackman’s used to be for United (or as good as Donald Sutherland’s are for Delta’s current campaign). But overall the ads are well done.

Hack My Trip doesn’t find them emotionally appealing. I’m going to suggest that’s not the fault of the ads. They’re doing a good job with what they have to work with. In some ways, a great advertising campaign can be the death knell for a mediocre product since everyone learns quickly what you’ve got on offer.

United wasn’t ‘the friendly skies’ before its merger with Continental. And the merger has taken a real toll.

Now, most of the early changes were good and many people have forgotten that. Prior to the integration of the United and Continental computer systems which completely messed up the airline operationally, for instance, we saw changes to frequent flyer award policies for instance which were very positive.

The merger ended United’s practice of ‘blocking’ award seats that were being offered by Star Alliance partners. With United, an airline might offer an award seat but United’s computers would pretend the seat wasn’t available (and agents would usually say the partner was not offering the seats to United). Continental ended that, so awards become much more available.

And routing rules eased. United used to enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ on an award, the amount of miles you could fly between two cities increased substantially (making it much easier to come up with awards that would work) once Continental got in control of things. United didn’t even let you fly over the Atlantic one-way and Pacific the other on an award between the US and Asia (and they didn’t always do it but were even supposed to charge more for an Atlantic crossing).

Of course, at the time I told the Chicago Tribune that the lack of negative changes by May 2011 didn’t mean that there wouldn’t be changes coming that would anger customers (and I flagged at the time decisions about the million miler program as a flashpoint). The way to predict what choices the merged carrier would make in integrating operations was just to look at what Continental policies were.

“Any time you merge two carriers, you’re going to change to one or the other,” Leff said. “And in almost every instance, the change has been to Continental. People who are very, very frequent fliers will notice.”

Now United is often referred to pejoratively as “Continental dba United.”

By May 2011, Continental had changed the aircraft livery but at least they hadn’t gotten rid of Rhapsody in Blue — something that was reportedly on the table in January 2012.

Continental folks really did have an inflated view of their own superiority.

Which isn’t to say that Continental itself wasn’t a good airline. But there isn’t nearly so much left of the old United dna. And they weren’t nearly so much better than United as they believed they were — a reality that came crashing down when they actually merged the airlines into a single entity in March 2012.

Reservations were lost. Agents had no idea how to use the computer systems. Flights couldn’t fly. Telephone wait times stretched into the hours. Things have gotten better than they were of course, but they’re still bad and systems are still broken. United’s computers still fail to ticket awards on partner airlines properly, with award itineraries mysteriously getting cancelled out.

And no one can really say that United has great service. Flying United is simply not flying the friendly skies.

Some of the very best flight crews I’ve ever had have been on United, though it’s entirely random and relatively rare. There’s nothing about United per se that gives you a good flight crew and I’d even suggest purely anecdotally from only my own experiences that American and Delta crews are on average better.

It makes no sense and does no good to advertise that United gives you friendly skies. Which is why it’s interesting that instead they now offer things that they say are ‘flyer friendly’ — things that, for the most part, are what their competitors also offer.

That illustrates what’s so hard about airline advertising. Non-stop flights are a reason to pick an airline. Price is a reason to pick an airline. Frequent flyer benefits are a reason to pick an airline.

The sorts of things that advertising can do, make people aware of your brand and express a feeling that’s consistent with your product, aren’t helpful since there’s just not much in the way of unique selling propositions for United (or American or Delta or…) to be communicated to mass audiences in an ad. That’s probably fine, but it’s why spending $30 million on a campaign isn’t really likely to move the needle.

Compare what United can do in advertising to Singapore Airlines’ new campaign. The ads show flight attendants going to extreme lengths to be prepared to meet the needs of each of their customers individually. And while you don’t have to believe that the flight attendants themselves are visiting film festivals in India or sourcing tea from ancient, expert sources, you believe the general idea that this represents the airline’s approach to service. United simply cannot run that ad.

At least they haven’t killed Rhapsody in Blue.

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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. @Andrew — the width on the 787 is probably too small in economy for them to play their instruments :D.


  2. Nicely done, Gary, but I think Joe Branatelli’s JoeSentMe newsletter had an even better take this weekend: “The fools running United actually think they are doing a good job. When you talk to them–as I must do from time to time–they are convinced they’re running a great airline and we customers are just too stupid to realize it.”

  3. They have a whole lot of work to do. Last summer, I was traveling with my parents and the F check in agent was so sullen and unfriendly that my mom, who is by no means a potty mouth still refers to her as “that bitch”.

    I further suggest that they need to decouple choice of routes/cabins from seniority and couple it with friendliness. I still recall a grouchy dragon in F from LHR to IAD who made me feel a glass of water was an imposition . . . .

  4. so – here’s the thing. I work for a huge company. And I *never* fly United, in fact I go to great lengths to avoid them. And if you get executives at our company together, talking about travel, you find people giving “their years without flying United” statistics with great pride. 7 years, 12 years, etc. And it’s all about the service. When people feel disrespected by an airline, they never forget it.

  5. “for instance, we saw changes to frequent flyer award policies for instance which were very positive.”
    I think it is because they could not race to the bottom as they did not know which was the bottom.
    Many of the so called positive changes came as they adopted the old CO policies. If that happened to be better, so be it. They did not really know it was better for the consumer, it was more of this program overall is worse for the consumer and better for us.
    Now they have had time to know I see negative changes coming soon.

    The delay may be due to a combination of
    i.e., knowing what is better for the consumer.
    As they are fixated on short term bottom line as as they strive for more profitable customers, once they think they know, they will do it. See the new MQDs
    – e.g., as soon as AFWD published the fuel dump trick, the priority increased and they fixed that
    So, as you trumpet the sweet spots, they will disappear.
    The old CO system may not allow easy changes, so they are stuck with things as they are and as soon as they can fix things, they will.

  6. Another reason why United chose “Rhapsody in blue” for its commercials- the song doesn’t feature any guitars in it. *also refuses to fly United due to its poor reputation*

  7. Sir, i used to think that your blog had more weight than say, Lucky’s who I have stopped reading, because the whining and first class p0rn gets real tired, fast. Now I am not so sure.

    You article misses various key points.

    UA is still two airlines. Flights operated by former UA aircraft is still operated by former United crew. Flights operated by former CO crew is operated by former CO crew. Even though United tries to be a singular airline, it it still two cultures, and will continue to to be segregated until the crews I think have a singular contract / union. Service varies greatly if you have a 3 digit flight number (UA crew) or 2 or 4 digit flight number (CO crew).

    Services internationally on former CO crews ( the CO crews tend to be younger, on nicer planes with more room) are almost constantly better than say, service from a tired Dulles based ( ancient) crew, 8 seats across on a 777 in Business . I fly both 3 digit flights (UA) and 2 digit (CO) internationally regularly.

    How many flights on United have you taken in the last two years? . How many international business class tickets or p.s flights have you taken in the last two years? If the answer is very few or none, than you can’t really speak authoritatively on this subject. I have taken several, my guess is more than you. I have seen first hand, the change. Some other items missing from your post: The old UA ghetto birds are gone, these have been completely redone ( practically brand new inside, and fly mostly internationally now). The old p.s planes have been redone. If you spend as much time as I do on them, you would appreciate the upgrade. For what its worth, row 9 is overrated. And Wifi!

    Service on the former UA side of the house are usually lacking. I say usually. Dulles has the worst of the UA lot. Ask a Dulles crew member for something different, like an executive meal, or something extra and see the response. Its awful. I would say other UA bases are much, much better.

    For what its worth, I have been an old UA flyer since 2001, and a old CO flyer since 2006. So I see both sides of the coin, something you should try to do in your posts. And yes, I fly enough to notice where the crews are based, and which bases tend to have better crews.

    I also recommend that you should try to secure the services of an editor.

    And yes, UA or any other US airline could never run the SQ ad. I wish they could.

  8. I have a lifetime President’s Club membership card and a Lifetime Red Carpet Club card. I wrote and asked if they would give my wife the other membership on merger. They never wrote back. I have never flown them since…………..

  9. @Mike,

    I don’t usually comment directly to other posters, but I have to disagree with you in so many ways.

    First, I have filed several FAA complaints this year against United because Continental inflight crews continue to allow bags out in the exit row, in the bulk head during take-off/landing. I have tried alerting flight crews and when it happened at take-off they refused to correct it at landing. This safety issue has NEVER happened to me with a United crew.

    United crews tend to have a bit of a sense of humor, but also they tend to be unhappy, I agree with that.

    Continental crews tend to have fake smiles, but the fact that you can tell that it is an act, is just as bad to me. Now that said, CO GUM based crews have been absolutely AMAZING, cannot fault that.

    Boarding is an absolute JOKE, you say you pay premium cabin flights, how can you say boarding with 50 other people along with the 50 in the Premium cabin is a set up? Try flying UA/AA that preboard their Premium Cabins, Delta is the best with this.

    UA has wifi on 70 planes, big deal? Competition is basically complete and they all have planson rolling out a satellite wifi system, so odds are both will have Int’l wifi completely around the same time, but at least right now the competition has it on almost all their flights.

    Ever see yourself as #1 on the upgrade list and still now clear while seats disappear? It’s because many of us know how to bypass that upgrade queue thanks to Continental systems.

    Now how about those Airbus seats? Let’s see how they hold up over time, and can’t put that Macbook Air in the seat pocket anymore. Oh yah, and why the hell are they Grey? Is that even a United color?

    Crews may be a little friendlier overall, but how about those check-in/gate agents that have turned into Dragons?

    Shall we not forget the constant delays for Aircraft servicing? Why do other airlines not have these problems?

    This is an ad that is trying to get you to believe that there are changes that are customer friendly, but as Gary said, it’s all stuff they’ve always had, everyone else has, and isn’t any better than it ever was.

    AND EWR friendly, seriously? At least they know that place is a gonger.

  10. @Mike I can accept everything you say as correct, and that would all support my point that United cannot do an ad that says they are the friendly skies — for reasons you cite — and it’s a big difference to now talk about aircraft features as flyer friendly rather than the ads talking about their people being friendly.

  11. @SuzyW – haven’t had a chance to read Joe yet, I’m playing catchup after a really tough week, but that’s probably about right

  12. Good post, pretty much agree with everything. Just my personal opinion but I do tend to find Delta crews generally better than United or American (though I’d put AA above UA) nowadays. The former CO crews and plains – especially those godawful CO seats – never impressed me at all. Just like someone taken over by The Borg, some appearances of UA may still be there, but it’s CO/Borg in its DNA now.

  13. @Gary, I agree with what you say. Generally, if the plane is a former UA plane (thus UA crew) I loathe and sometimes can be semi scared to do things which are standard on most carriers I fly : using the call button to request for things, and asking for executive meal. On former CO this is no issue, usually. My experience is over multiple international flights.
    What is disappointing, is that UACO can spend millions on hardware upgrades (which they have), but the software (employees) are really the ones needing an upgrade. I’ve been told that secret shoppers ( mystery fliers ) will be on UA flights ( to come) , to police some of the FA / pursers to see if they are following the service policy manual, and for quality control. We shall see if anything changes.

    @Steve, your knowledge of UA is outdated. Boarding is by zones now, (separated by different lines) and is very much enforced (in CONUS only) I have a habit of staying in the lounge as long as possible and boarding the plane last, I usually just zip to the front of my ( Zone 1) line now. In the past I would have go past people in Zone 4 and say excuse me, multiple times. If the multiple lines are not there, late in the process I would just stand on the blue carpet ( not red carpet anymore) and the gate agent would usually stop and let me though first. Most current UA flyers like the new policy, though is does look very “southwest”. Internationally, (from overseas) its still two lines.

    Full disclosure : I am United Global Services, so my experience may be different that most other flyers.

  14. When United took away free Economy Plus seating for loyal Premier members when booking outside of a 24 hour window (after the merger), I started avoiding them like the plague – such unfriendly treatment! Virgin America is s much friendlier experience, plus VX matched my UA Silver status meaning I get upgraded most of the time now vs having to pay for Econ+

  15. This multi million dollar campaign is most definitely why they honored the recent mistake fare fiasco. Can you imagine them not honoring on the eve of the launch of a “friendly” ad theme?

  16. Sidenote : A twenty says that Nancy, and the other FA’s pictured in the ad from 1982, ARE STILL FLYING with United. Probably senior purser by now.

  17. @Mike I think you misunderstand what I’m talking about boarding.

    Delta boards First Class separately, then Diamonds, Plats, Golds etc. then zones

    American boards First Class and Exec Plats/Emeralds, then Priority AAccess

    United preboards Global Service, THEN boards First Class, 1Ks and Platinums at the same time, that can be 50+ people. They then board Golds/Silvers and Credit Card holders.

    As for being enforced? Yet to see it, flown 100+ already this year and have had multiple flights with Zone 2 in front of me and never turned back once.

    As for saying most of us like the policy? You have to be kidding me, we liked the Red Carpet, I HATE boarding with Plats and zone 1 international is nearly 100 people some times F, C, 1K, Plats… that’s a joke.

  18. How many flight atendants does it take to put an olive in the drink of a busness class passenger? 3 On my most recent United flight. How many did that leave to welcome economy class passengers abord? Zero. I must have neglected to accept the “welcome abord” fee

  19. On a quick note, AA boards with 2 lines (like UA used to) and boards their planes in way less time, my full 737 flights are usually ready to go 10m before departure time, UA can barely board theirs in 35m.

  20. I wrote some time ago (http://boardingarea.com/milesfromblighty/2013/08/21/you-know-youre-flying-with-a-united-crew-when/) about how you know you’re on a United plane. As a former United lover I was disappointed to note that I generally got better service from the ex-CO crew than from from ex-UA crew. The exception was a UA ps flight from SFO-JFK, where the service was just superb. I have a good dozen United flights coming up next week and am not looking forward to them in the way I once did.
    The poster who mentions he is GS naturally has a much better experience than all other passengers, since United wants to keep his business. Everyone else is seen a way of earning revenue for the airline, not as customers.

  21. To echo MilesFromBlighty: The majority of Global Services passengers I’ve meet (ironically though socials organized by United Sales people) seem to concur that generally service on former CO planes (and CO crew) is consistently better. I think most former United people tend to place a lot of misplaced hate on Continental. 2 years later, I’m not sure why. [ Like a bitter ex lover ]

    I don’t fly to SF that often but I do fly JFK-LAX a lot. These days those flights are staffed by LAX base. I think the JFK base tend to fly the former UA planes that now get sent to ( Zurich / Geneva/ Istanbul / Buenos Aires) from EWR. These are staffed by United people, not CO. Remember : The facade may the same, but its still two airlines.

    I wish the crews could be universally good, across all bases, I think UA is working on that. Cheaper than the millions already spent on hardware upgrades no? Front line employees need an upgrade.

  22. I agree with all the unhappy United loyal customers. We fly between Los Angeles and Honolulu 10 – 12 times each year and Continental was our airline before the merger. We love Hawaiian, their service is very good, but they do not offer complimentary upgrades. So we are stuck with United. First flight out of LAX and red eye out of Honolulu.
    I have a question for Steve: How do you bypass the upgrade queue on United thanks to Continental system? We have been 1 and 2 on the list many times but somehow others behind us got the seat. Most of the time there are no seats available up front 72 hrs before the flight.
    Wouldn’t that be great if at least one of USA airlines focused on superior service in par with Singapore or other airlines along with great reward program? That’s would be the call for all the airlines to strive higher.

  23. United is a good carrier. Come on lets face it airlines are nothing special now so as long as they don’t curse or spit on me and I land in one piece, then I am good. I have flown United about twelve times this year and I have always received good service.

  24. @Colin you’ve been lucky, I think that on average Delta and even American are better airlines today than United is and also that both offer better customer service. Regardless, it would be a stretch to call them the friendly skies because of their customer service don’t you think?

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