Among the “big three” carriers in the United States, I tend to think that historically American and United are in one league, while Delta is in another league. However, there’s no arguing that United is making a lot of positive changes. Could we see United become more of a competitor to Delta when it comes to passenger experience? Could United become the most premium airline in the United States?
United is doing all of the right things
United Airlines is becoming a fantastically well rounded airline, and so many of the changes that we’ve seen in recent years, months, and weeks, have been positive:
- United has long had the most impressive global route network among the “big three” carriers, in particular for ultra long haul flying
- Over the past few years United has been investing in its Polaris business class experience, introducing new seats, an improved soft product, Polaris Lounges, and more
- Now United is investing in its domestic product — not only is United refreshing its narrow body fleet (which we’ve also seen American do), but United is configuring these planes in a way that customers will appreciate
- United has a huge emphasis on premium seats, with a lot of first class and extra legroom economy seats on aircraft, particularly for upcoming deliveries
- While I question the value in this, United is becoming the technology leader, with plans to acquire everything from supersonic jets to electric air taxis
In many ways United is already overtaking Delta:
- Delta’s international business class hard product is underwhelming and inconsistent, especially with the number of 767s that Delta flies, which feature an inferior business class seat
- United has international premium cabin lounges, while Delta doesn’t
- While Delta does a great job configuring its old planes with new cabins, United will have the advantage of having new planes with cutting edge technology (for example, United will allow bluetooth connections to inflight entertainment)
In fairness, it’s worth acknowledging that it will take United years to get to the point where all planes feature this swanky new technology, and in the meantime the experience won’t be anything like that for most customers. That’s always the challenge with airlines announcing lofty goals — fleets can’t be updated overnight.
Can United compete with Delta’s service culture?
The things that United is investing in are totally worthwhile, but to me there’s one thing preventing United from being in Delta’s league — that’s the general culture at the airline, including the employees. Individually United has some great employees, just as American does. But I believe these employees are great because they’re good people who choose to live their lives in a positive way, rather than because of anything that United instills in them.
What United doesn’t have is the consistent customer focus you’ll find at Delta. Are all Delta employees amazing? No, of course not. But when you fly Delta there’s a general sense among employees that they appreciate and value their customers, much more so than you’ll find on American and United. I find this to be the case at every step of the journey, from check-in, to lounges, to inflight.
How has Delta historically been able to accomplish this? I’d guess it comes down to several factors:
- Delta has historically had the most employee profit sharing among airlines in the United States, and as a result employees are invested in the success of the airline
- Delta has historically had better labor relations than American and United; for example, Delta flight attendants choose not to be unionized, so employees are largely on the same page with management
- Delta has long invested in its passenger experience across the board, and that has given employees a sense of pride in their company and the product they can offer
- Perhaps to draw a coronavirus comparison, Delta employees have “herd immunity” when it comes to having good attitudes; when new employees start they quickly see that the expectation is to take care of customers, rather than just doing whatever they want
- In general I’d say Delta’s management team has had more consistent messaging and leadership — the airline had Richard Anderson as CEO from 2007 until 2016, and then Ed Bastian took over, who previously served as president; compare that to United, which has gone from Glenn Tilton, to Jeff Smisek, to Oscar Munoz, to Scott Kirby, and they’ve all had totally different management styles, some completely toxic (especially the first two)
While nice cabins and lots of premium seats are nice, will United ever be able to compete with Delta on service? A couple of things come to mind:
- I do think United investing in its product will give employees a sense of pride in the product, and that should have some positive impacts on service
- I’ve been impressed by Scott Kirby’s tenure at United so far; in the past he has always come across as someone buried deep in a spreadsheet somewhere, while nowadays he comes across as a lot more human, and I think that’s something employees appreciate
But even with those positive factors, a corporate culture doesn’t change overnight. Can United actually go through a renaissance, whereby employees at United consistently become customer-focused, rather than just when they feel like it? If United found a way to do this, it would be a force to be reckoned with. But it’s also no small task…
Coincidentally I’m writing this from a United flight in Economy Plus (my American flight was delayed by hours and I had to rebook). The 737 is fairly nice and has TVs at every seat, but even so it hasn’t been a great experience. I think this is representative of the typical United experience:
- At the Premier Access check-in counter (I’m Star Alliance Gold) two employees were having a conversation and didn’t offer to help, even though they saw us
- I thanked the gate agent as I boarded the aircraft, and she said nothing
- Wi-Fi was broken for the first half of the flight
- I went to the bathroom after takeoff, and when I returned, the flight attendant and cart were one row behind my seat; rather than moving the cart a few feet, the flight attendant “shooed” me to the back of the plane with a hand motion, and I had to wait there until he was done with service (I’d be fine with that if he politely asked me to wait, and/or said “thanks for your patience,” but the attitude rubbed me the wrong way)
United Airlines is making some improvements that customers will love — the airline has spent the past few years improving its premium cabin international experience, and now the airline is focused on improving the experience for everyone else. This includes ordering new planes, and most importantly, installing a product that people will enjoy.
With the direction United is headed, the carrier is definitely getting more in Delta’s league, and leaving American behind. The big question is whether United can catch up with Delta’s culture. TVs and mood lighting are nice, but friendly employees who seem like they enjoy their jobs and value their customers are even nicer.
What do you think — can United improve service to the point that it can actually compete with Delta from a passenger experience standpoint, or is what we’re seeing now the extent of it?