18 September 2009

Sarah's employer and its future

Just came across an article on USA Today, where there is some discussion on the makeover of United Airlines.

I do feel that Sarah's bosses are trying something constructive, after years of driving completely into the ground what used to be the greatest airline in the world. Nevertheless, in my opinion, both as a customer and a follower of the aviation industry, more needs to be done. It's great that performance bonuses are given to flight crews of on-time flights, but they are token payments at most; I need to see bonuses that mean something, and more importantly, better pay levels for flight attendants so that better candidates can be recruited and retained. As is, the employees have trouble keeping their morale high. I still have a very bad aftertaste from the a-hole purser on my flight out of Toronto back in May.

The makeover of the first and business class products is a huge step in the right direction, and the new products are competitive with highly regarded foreign airlines. However, it's not enough to have nice premium cabins, when they still sit in 20-year-old junk planes with unrenovated, obsolete economy cabins. Negotiations are still ongoing for a large order of new planes to replace the aging 747/757/767 fleet, and I hope to see something nice come out of that.

Some aggressive marketing should help too. United marketing has been very timid lately, and it's downgraded most of its Los Angeles services to Express puddle jumpers, which makes it more likely that loyal customers, including me, will defect to a competitor.

Low fares can only take an airline so far. The best airline is one that charges reasonable fares and delivers top-notch experience, something United used to do well in the past, but has since forgotten. One reason why I used to look forward to showing up over the skies of a great faraway city aboard a United plane was because of this perception of innovation and quality, which simply no longer exists today. Now, when I show up at a foreign city in a United plane, I just don't feel that pride, surrounded by newer planes from formerly "lesser" airlines that have continued to innovate. And the timid marketing and shrinking route network means that it's less and less likely that a United flight is the most convenient means of heading for my desired destination anyway.

It'll be a shame to see the airline that was an integral part of many of my past travels become irrelevant, or nonexistent even. A turnaround can't come soon enough. And more importantly, Sarah must continue to be able to fly - and more importantly, feel pride in her airline. Let's see how the next few years pan out.

On a related note, a USA Today blog post quotes an internal employee memo as saying that October 28th will be the final day of Boeing 737 service at United. A special 737-300, designated Flight 737, will start off at Washington Dulles, visiting Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles before finishing in San Francisco, with farewell ceremonies in each city. The 737 had served United since 1968, when it had become the launch customer for the -200 variant. I hope for a new generation of new planes - be it more of the A320 series or the return of the 737 in the form of the modern Next Generation models - to soon take their place, and combined with Sarah's expertise, deliver superior services for the customers.

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