While Glen Tilton, former United Airlines CEO, may not have been as bad as some made him out to be, he seemed to have a lot of trouble with empathy. He often gave the appearance that he could care less about the concerns of the employees he was leading (particularly the front-line workers) and even expressed vitriol for bloggers, remarking that "bloggers have too much time on their hands."
Last Friday, United’s new CEO (and former Continental chief) Jeff Smisek addressed the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston. One Flyertalker, cerealmarketer, was in attendance and offered the following feedback:
Jeff spoke at a Houston conference today. An energy related audience so a lot of broad brush strokes but a few nuances….
– Working very hard personally to make sure the culture is elevated – noted there was a lot of mistrust as a result of the events earlier in decade – making it work takes up a lot of his time
– Believes all the lie flats and AVODs will do no good if service is "surly" and goal is to be a customer service company first
– Reiterated the "make employees happy to come to work" philosophy
– Fuel, fuel, fuel
– Noted ANA JV will have reciprocal elite recognition; he seemed to imply something more than Star Alliance level but don’t remember announcement detailing
– Working through UA legacy fleet complexity will take time
– Doing the work to make the technology best in industry to enhance delivery
– Highlighted he believes loyalty program is best and in good shape (implying not a lot will be changed)
A group of us had a chance to talk beforehand…GS’s were assured their attention would continue, some were frustrated with cross CO/UA elite inconsistencies — to which the new online tool was his quick response — they loved it.
I probed on bringing the UA Business standard closer to BizFirst and eventually Asian competition — he was quite emphatic the way they deliver the product will change for the better.
Hard product will be in great shape but wants to avoid things like getting a tray plopped down when you’re in a premium intl cabin — really going to focus on service delivery. But said it will take time…
But overall he was very thoughtful– not flippant — and very much has service delivery at the top of his day to day, fuel aside.
Overall, I am very encouraged by the feedback. Let’s break it down a little:
First, it is magnificent that Smisek recognizes the importance service plays in how people think about an airline. I can’t recall much about my business class seat, meal, or IFE on my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles in 2009, but I distinctly and clearly remember the scowl on the face of one of the upstairs FAs and how grumpy she seemed to be working for United. But I also remember her colleague, who went out of his way to make up for the lack of friendliness and finesse of his colleague.
Or take Captain Denny Flanagan, the man who makes every passenger feel special. It is people like him and the many wonderful FAs and ground staff at UA that play a big role in keeping me loyal. UA happens to be convenient for me, but no more convenient than American, Delta, or US Airways. Whether I connect in Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, or Charlotte really does not bother me–I have embraced United because of how well they have treated me over the years. It is all about service.
Second, I will be interested to learn more about the reciprocal elite benefits on United and All Nippon Airways. Joint Ventures seem to be the future of the airline industry and it would not surprise me if NH and UA frequent flyers start enjoying perks like domestic upgrades or even Economy Plus on United. This is all speculation at this point.
Last, Smisek implied that Mileage Plus would remain largely unchanged, which would cause me to breathe a big sigh of relief. Even with the occasional StarNet blocking, UA’s loyalty program really shines and is now even better since the routing rules have been loosened. Additionally, I deal with a lot of frequent flyer programs and it is so valuable to leisure flyers like me that the lowest fare classes earn full mileage credit.
With UA’s NRT hub under siege and oil prices rising rapidly, the future may not look rosy right now—but Smisek’s words do encourage me.
For more notes from other reports on the matter see what Jeff Smisek had to say about government fees and fuel prices.