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I have seen the friendly skies

I like United Airlines. Really, I do. Here’s how.

Last weekend, my friends at NJ.com laid into United as “the airline flyers love to hate.” The giant’s problems are well-known: late flights; no integration yet between United and Continental crews; an aging fleet; a scandal that cost the company one CEO.

But I see a different airline. United treats me quite well. That’s because I am lucky to belong to the practically secret society of United (very) frequent fliers called Global Services. I belong because of the number of miles I fly and the amount of money paid mostly by others to fly me here and there. No one knows exactly how many miles or dollars it takes to be invited.

The result is that I see the good United Airlines. I see the possible United Airlines. The solution to United’s woes is right under its nose: treat customers as well as you treat me and they will be as loyal as I am.

I realize there is a tragedy of the commons at work here: not everyone can be the first to board. But that’s just one tactical benefit of membership. The real benefit of Global Services is that it takes the worry out of flying. And it’s worry that makes flying a misery.

I don’t worry nearly as much as I used about not getting to my destination. When I’ve had flights canceled or badly delayed because of equipment problems or weather or a Lufthansa strike—shit happens — I have found to my surprise and delight that someone at United has already booked alternatives for me. The first time that happened, I blogged about it, suggesting that because the airline can’t afford that level of human help for every passenger, it should invest in AI systems to automatically help passengers when trouble arrives instead of the airplane. It would be well worth the investment. Anxious passengers are unhappy customers. Confident passengers are happy customers.

I don’t worry about my carry-on bags (I don’t carry on an obnoxious amount, only the limit or less, and I pride myself on getting a week into an overnight bag) because I get on flights first (sorry for rubbing that in) and get my choice of overhead space. Lucky me. United and every airline could fix this source of great stress by stopping the nickel-and-diming of customers over checked luggage and by redesigning cabin space to accommodate more of our stuff. Another investment? Yes, but worth it.

I don’t worry about legroom — well, until that asshole in front of me reclines — because frequent fliers get to reserve “economy plus” seats with a few blessed extra inches without added fees and because I have enough miles to buy upgrades when they’re available. NJ.com says that United’s prices are already higher. If that higher price got people more comfort then that would buy loyalty. If United became the first airline to ban the recline, it would get every tall person in the world as a religious adherent. Yes, I know that those extra inches cost money. But we can’t know how many people don’t fly — or don’t fly this airline — because they simply dread the experience. That’s the definition of an opportunity cost.

I don’t worry about being treated rudely because my name is on a list of people to treat nicely. Sometimes, that even gets a bit uncomfortable, as when the flight attendant asks everybody else for a second-choice for dinner but not Global Services customers because we’re guaranteed to get first dibs. Inequality at work. Well, how about if all passengers got to select and reserve their meals from a wider choice when they buy the ticket? Yes, I know that adds logistical complexity and cost but, again, taking the airline people “love to hate” and making it into the airline people love won’t happen without investment. As for how we are treated by employees, I find without fail that if I’m nice and understanding with United staff they are nice and understanding with me and that has nothing to do with status or inequality. Yes, passengers can be nasty asshats. Yes, staff can get snippy in retaliation. But once again, the more relaxed, confident, and comfortable passengers are, the nicer they will be and the nicer the experience will be for everyone. Kumbaya Air.

You might say all this is naive. Everybody can’t have extra legroom — but what if they did? Everybody can’t get the food they want— but why not? Everyone can’t let the airline do the worrying for them. But isn’t that what we’re paying them for?

I’m fascinated by the airline industry because, like the cable and telco businesses, it had operated on a business model of imprisonment: we’re the only ones who can get you where you want to go or get you online and so we’ll treat you however we want. And then social media came along, letting customers revolt even from the air. So airlines, like evil telcos, have social-media staff ready to jump on a Twitter kvetch and salve customers’ wounds. That gets them only so far; it gets them stories like NJ.com’s quantifying just how pissed their customers are. The only way to win in the social era is to give people service so good they will brag about getting it. That’s what being in the rarefied air of Global Services has taught me. The only way I could understand the possible United Airlines is by experiencing how well one can be treated.

On a recent trip to give a talk in Berlin (see: that’s how I rack up those miles), I spent a few hours visiting Lufthansa’s Innovation Hub as I’m a member of its advisory board. I also ran a couple of brainstorming sessions for Lufthansa at the DLD conference in Munich. And in response to a Lufthansa challenge many years ago, I wrote a proposal for the social airline. Through this, I have met people at airlines who are trying to rethink their businesses or invent new ones. It is possible to imagine an airline we want to fly. Really, it is.

I am writing this right now from a United flight to San Francisco, sitting in coach, watching the people up front getting their warm nuts and cold ice cream sundaes as I chomp on a shitty sandwich I bought at the airport. Still, I got bulkhead and extra legroom and overhead space because of my status. I am still lucky.

Only thing is, I don’t yet know whether I’ll get into Global Services again next year. Even though I’ve flown about as many miles and spent about as many dollars this year as in the last two, there’s no telling. So you are free to consider this entire piece an exercise in moral hazard: an effort to suck up to the gods of Global Services in hopes of being invited past the velvet rope of Group 1 boarding. You might come back to me next year as I tweet about the asshole in the middle seat in front who just kneecapped me and laugh. Or maybe by then, the new regime at United will take what it already knows — how to treat customers really well — and scale that.

A passenger can dream, can’t he?

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