Why United Airlines Hired A New Head Of MileagePlus With No Airline Experience

United Airlines turned a lot of heads when they brought in a Vice President of Comcast to be the new leader of their MileagePlus frequent flyer program. He had no experience in loyalty or working with airlines. And they were tapping someone from Comcast – one of the companies in America most hated by consumers – to lead their consumer marketing.

Brian Sumers, in his subscription Airline Observer, gets the scoop on why.

United hired a senior executive to bring media magic to United’s aircraft. It’s Richard Nunn, who joined the airline earlier this year as CEO of MileagePlus, despite having no experience with loyalty programs. What Nunn does have is big media experience, coming to the airline after five years at Comcast, where he worked on a technology platform that monetized advertising across Comcast’s ad-supported businesses, according to his LinkedIn profile.

He’ll do something similar at United, Nocella said, both with screens and the overall MileagePlus program.

“It’s more than media,” [Chief Commercial Officer Andrew] Nocella said. “Richard just takes us to a new level in being able to use all the information we have to better serve our customers, but also do a bunch of very interesting media plays that he had done in the past.”

United Airlines is investing in retrofitting planes, including installing seat back entertainment screens, in order to compete for premium passengers with Delta. But they also see an opportunity to monetize these screens, selling customer eyeballs to advertisers and cross-selling to their own customers.

Frequent flyer programs have reams of data, but do a terrible job marketing to customers. As a mid-40s white guy travel programs have tried to sell me golf for years. Customers who are already spending money are the ones most likely to spend more, yet elites are frequently being sold travel insurance that they never buy along with paid seat selection, and rental cars – as well as co-brand credit cards they already have.

The theory, at least, seems to be that Comcast might be better at monetizing data and eyeballs than anyone already at United.

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. @ David: Thanks, David…That’s precisely the response I had to this announcement.

  2. Well, you can’t say that United is being disingenuous about how they view their loyalty program. It’s already a huge cash cow and could be easily tweaked to ensure more loyalty (and money) by providing a little more to passengers. United obviously hates that idea and prefers to move in a direction where they can squeeze money out of passengers without actually providing anything. Gosh I love this Kirby guy!

  3. This is a marketer’s wet dream. Segment your screenback advertising by airfare spend level, promote the cobranded credit card membership to only those without it, and so on.

    I wonder if the company associated with business travelers will be used in B2B targeting. Between things like BusinessExtra and corporate accounts, it wouldn’t be too hard to match against. Just wait until you start seeing ads from the companies who’s sales people keep harassing you lol.

  4. All this effort is more about extracting more revenue from their customers. There’s not much loyalty or frequent flyer benefits.

    They should align him with revenue officer role.

    Find someone who actually understands loyalty marketing for this guy’s job.

  5. @Christian – long time UA 1K. The first thing they need to do is make it possible to use the loyalty perks currently available. I have about 700 Plus Points which are going to expire the end of next month because upgrades seldom clear, both domestic and international. I know I’m not alone.

    MP miles are useless, unless you don’t mind paying 80K miles to travel to Milwaukee in December.

    The perks of being a loyalist on UA are slowly dwindling.

  6. How about they just put a menu on the screen and let me order good food that I actually want to eat delivered to my seat (even paid) instead of having an apathetic attendant push that stupid cart up and down the aisle.

  7. The entire UA loyalty program needs a re-think if they want to extract more value from it, whether they want actually build loyalty to gain discretionary dollars, or maximize marketing revenue.

  8. The only reason why someone from Comcast is of value to United is because Comcast does a great job of monopolizing its markets and jacking up the prices. UAL wants the exact same thing. And Comcast is NOT well-loved.

  9. He should fix the ridiculous pricing.of award flights. Might as well fly delta.

  10. “This safety presentation is brought to you by Coke.” – I can see the bullshite now.

  11. They should hire someone like me, a 2.6 million miler. I may not have the exact experience necessary (but then does this guy really?) but I understand loyalty and what the consumer wants. Has anyone else noticed the decline since the merger years ago???
    Hey Scott, give me a call!

  12. I haven’t used the seat back screen in years, preferring to use my cheapo Amazon Fire Tablet. But I see an opportunity to sell custom fitted seat back screen covers. Does SkyMall still exist?

  13. The only reason I stick with UA as a long-time 1k is the customer service I get from the 1k customer line. Having tried top tier with AA and their horrifying idea of customer service, and hating to pay what Delta charges (in points or cash) for mediocre flights, I stick to the middle ground of UA. Where I can can get mediocre flights, mostly for ok cash prices, but good customer service. I’ve given up on using miles with them except for random things (I look every time and rarely can find anything useful unless I get creative). I too have 700+ plus points that I’ve tried to use on international and domestic flights and have had clear exactly once in a year, even when I buy an expensive coach ticket. Ahhh USA airlines. You stink. Almost as bad as Comcast…Just wait- next up a hire from Verizon!

  14. Let’s be honest. Mileage Plus is not a marketing program not a loyalty program.

  15. As somebody who’s worked in the cable industry I’m not optimistic about this guy. The cable industry is about 20 years behind financial services in data expertise. My former employer was almost acquired by Comcast in the not too-distant past and during the due diligence phase we were not impressed with them, they seemed way behind us in data & analytics. And mind you, we ourselves were way behind the banks I’ve worked for in of data & analytics.

    But on the other hand, Mr. Nunn was smart enough to leave the cable industry, so there’s hope…

  16. @john >“This safety presentation is brought to you by Coke.”

    This is already happening. A few years ago United’s safety video was little more than an ad for “Spiderman No Way Home”. When “Rise of Skywalker” came out United also had a crossover safety video for that film.

  17. The most hated cable system is Cox Cable, not Comcast. Therefore, there is some hope….but not much.

  18. The once great Mileage Plus has become Mileage. Soon it will become Basic Mileage. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

  19. United Airlines should rename its “Mileage Plus” airline loyalty program to “Mileage Minus.” Valued United Airlines elite passengers now travel to fewer award ticket places while earning fewer miles and will experience fewer adventures.

  20. A planeful of passengers who can afford to travel, stuck in front of a screen for hours. It’s marketing fruit too juicy to pass up.

  21. Analogy- while not every teacher will make a good pricipal, in order to be good teacher one first needs to be good teacher. Walk in their shoes…
    Easy to sit in an ivory tower and tell others his to do a job you know so little about

  22. I was sitting in a United “domestic first” cabin recently, and every screen in the cabin was just showing an endless loop of commercials – a United commercial, plus multiple commercials for various consumer products, movies, TV shows. It went on and on, over and over, right in your face, and was nauseating. There was no way to turn it off. I felt like the guy in that scene in Clockwork Orange.

    I ended up pulling one of the safety cards and jammed it into the screen to cover it. Flight attendant later stopped by my seat, saw what I had done, went away, and a minute or two later the screens all turned off. Commercials loop must have been running continuously for 30 minutes before she noticed.

    A brief glimpse of our Comcastic future.

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