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Running a Good Airline

United is rededicating itself to its core mission and is focused on keeping a steady course in turbulent times

Author Rod O'Connor Photography United Airlines Creative Services

TOUGH TIMES CAN PRESENT AN OPPORTUNITY to sharpen focus on what’s important for the long haul. United is doing just that, says United Airlines President John Tague. For the last year, the company has been executing against a back-to-basics agenda designed to improve performance and competitiveness, and ultimately to make it an industry-leading airline.

Many United leader voices have filled this column in the last 12 months, describing the work that is happening across the airline— whether it’s Kevin Knight, senior vice president of planning, describing the work to make the network that much stronger for customers, or Scott Dolan, senior vice president of airport operations, cargo and United Express, detailing the efforts under way to improve the airport experience. Those voices and the work they represent are united by a common goal—running a good airline for its customers.

Known internally as “Focus on 5,” the prioritization of efforts is a rallying cry for the entire organization to move in lockstep toward common goals of improving on-time performance, cleanliness, service, costs and revenue.

“We’re putting a stake in the ground that we will not settle for anything other than the best,” Tague says.

The company’s focus is paying off. Over the past year, United has gone from lagging behind to leading the industry in on-time performance. In fact, at press time, the airline had distributed more than $22 million in incentive pay to eligible frontline employees in recognition of this accomplishment. In addition, the carrier’s aircraft condition, cleanliness and employee courtesy ratings are at all-time highs.

“Our team is doing great work,” Tague says. “A consistent focus on the basics is creating an environment that enables our employees to be successful at what they wake up every morning wanting to do, which is to provide great service for our customers.”

The desire to improve service for customers is permeating the company. One example is a training program that customer service representatives at Washington Dulles Airport, in conjunction with management and local unions, came up with to film their interactions with customers and share them on a peer-to-peer basis. (The program will be rolled out companywide in 2010.) The goal: show how changing one or two little things can improve the interaction.

As Alexandria Marren, senior vice president of onboard service, noted in a recent Hemispheres Voices column, “The bottom line is, we are in the service business. We always want our customers to feel cared for and respected. Our people love what they do, and they are focused on being attentive to our customers’ needs. With that attitude —and all the necessary tools—we are making the customer’s experience that much better.”

Just like other large organizations navigating the current economic environment, United is ensuring it’s making the right investments that provide value and return to customers. For example, this year the company completed the rollout of new international first and business cabins on its Boeing 767s and 747s, incorporating new lie-flat seats, improved on-demand entertainment and other amenities that have won appreciative notices from media outlets—including, two years in a row, American Express Publishing Company’s Executive Travel magazine—and customers alike.

Customer satisfaction ratings are up as a result. Overall satisfaction ratings from customers flying the reconfigured international widebody aircraft are nearly two times greater than they were before the improvements. Additionally, an online survey found that ratings for cleanliness and cabin condition improved three times over. The company will begin the same upgrades on all of its 777 aircraft early next year.

Work is well under way in converting the Airbus 320s previously used for United’s former Ted product, installing first-class seats and leather throughout. Red Carpet Clubs are also being thoroughly refurbished to provide a more relaxing environment for customers waiting pre-flight or during layovers.

United recently began the process of introducing new uniforms by designer Cynthia Rowley. The company is involving all employee groups in the effort, gathering input about what is important to them. This is one of the many investments United is making and reflects the importance the company places on creating the best environment for customers and employees.

At the same time that the company is focused on improving its performance, it is also committed to strengthening its alliance and partner relationships. In October, United welcomed Continental to the Star Alliance, providing access to more than 60 new destinations for United customers. In December, Brussels Airlines joins Star Alliance as well. The addition of Brussels Airlines is even more valuable due to United’s announcement that it will be adding additional nonstop service to Brussels from its Chicago hub.

With the work under way and the strong network and unmatched alliances, there’s every reason to believe United will go from strength to strength, Tague says. The number of industry firsts reads like a timeline of modern air travel: United employed the first flight attendants and opened the world’s first flight kitchen in the 1930s. United was the first airline to introduce a credit card in the 1960s, and—in the 1990s— was the first to offer e-tickets. More recently, United cofounded Star Alliance, the first truly global alliance. In the last few years, United bucked the trend of adding seats in coach cabins and continues to offer Economy Plus, the product it pioneered that offers more legroom and has proven to be hugely popular with customers.

And next year, United will move its airline operations from suburban Chicago to the iconic Willis Tower in the heart of the city’s downtown Loop. The new location will act as an engine of collaboration among employees and a clear representation of United’s future.

“We’re passionate about running a great airline,” Tague says. “The performance improvements we’ve made in the past year give us the confidence that we are on the right path to continue and build momentum in 2010.”

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