United Is Telling Staff To Be Nice To Apple Employees

Filed Under: United
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A few days ago I wrote about a fascinating banner that United had up regarding their corporate accounts. The most interesting details were that Apple is United’s largest global customer, and they account for $150 million of United’s annual revenue.

Furthermore, United’s number one market for Apple is San Francisco to Shanghai, which accounts for $35 million of that annual revenue. Apparently Apple buys 50 business class seats on United daily between San Francisco and Shanghai. WOW.

Now, as you might expect, the details of these corporate contracts are confidential for a variety of reasons, so this wasn’t supposed to get out. Generally they’re confidential because:

  • The company they’re working with doesn’t necessarily want the public to know how much they spend on travel
  • For competitive reasons, presumably United doesn’t want their competitors knowing the details of their contracts

So there’s an interesting update on this front. Apparently the details of some corporate contracts have been pretty widely shared with United employees over the past several months, including by emails, newsletters, and banners.

The intention here was apparently to make United employees go the extra mile to take care of Apple employees (and other corporate clients), as I’m told the companies are entering contract renewal talks.

For example, here’s one of those emails that United’s chief pilot sent to pilots over the holidays (the first part is from the chief pilot, the second part is a note from the United employee who manages the Apple account):

My fellow pilots,

Thank you for your professionalism. Every day, you are making a difference in our operation that will improve the traveling experience for our passengers. Your performance is helping other departments at United as they work to increase the number of corporate customers and their satisfaction. These corporate customers are highly coveted by all airlines; consequently, their retention and acquisition are a top priority as we work to defeat our competitors in this highly competitive market. Recently, I received the following letter from Senior Manager of Global Corporate Accounts Jonathan Harris, who is responsible for managing our Apple account. Jonathan is very appreciative for your ongoing recognition of our Apple Global Services customers on our flights to Asia and has asked that I pass this message along:

Dear pilot colleagues,

I want to pass along my appreciation and thanks for your teamwork in support of Apple, our largest global corporate customer. Your professionalism and dedication to enhancing the customer service experience for Apple Global Services customers by hand delivering personalized ‘thank you’ cards helps us compete and win against the foreign flag carriers especially in the very competitive US-Asia market.

As we enter into another 3-year contract renewal negotiation this coming January with Apple, your partnership is key in demonstrating to Apple how United differentiates itself from the competition. Overall, Apple continues to grow revenue on United more than 20 percent annually and keeping them happy while traveling on United is critical to the success of many of our SFO routes. Thanks again for going above and beyond, your efforts make a positive impact to the strong and growing partnership between Apple and United.

Wishing you and your family a very happy and safe holiday season,
Jonathan

Now United has sent the following email to their corporate account customers:

Dear valued customers,

As you may already be aware, some confidential high-level revenue information for about a dozen global corporate accounts in the San Francisco area was leaked via Twitter on Friday afternoon and has been picked-up on a variety of other media and social media channels.

This information was provided to United employees as part of a pilot project focused on San Francisco to highlight the importance of our corporate relationships and was not intended to be shared publicly. The project has since been discontinued.

The small number of accounts mentioned by name on this material have already been contacted directly by United. The material has been taken down and moving forward we will review and further restrict sharing of account information to a strictly need to know audience.

Bottom line

I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the reason that United had these banners in the first place was to educate employees on the importance of corporate contracts. The intent behind that is great, though obviously the balance of maintaining confidentiality while still stressing the importance of these contracts is tough.

It is interesting that United has specifically encouraged employees to take care of Apple Global Services customers. It makes me wonder if in addition to the status, United also has some sort of designator on the manifest if someone is an Apple employee.

So the concept of educating employees on this seems really well intentioned, though nowadays there are no such things as secrets anymore, so it got out, and unfortunately they’ve ended the program since.

Interesting stuff…

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Comments
  1. I think that United may have purposely leaked this info to scare off foreign airlines that may want to try to compete on SFO routes (elal etc.).

  2. Well I know what t-shirt I am wearing on my next UA flight….I’ll have three ice cream sundaes please and thank you! 🙂

  3. I work for Deloitte and have been singled out by Delta for flying (way too many miles) on Deloitte travel being in the top 5% of business flyers out of ATL. So, not just United but I’m sure the other airlines track this.

  4. Not sure if its viewable by FA’s / on the manifest (i’m sure it could be, like status or special meal), but res agents are definitely able to see if you’re travelling on a corporate contract, and which corporate you’re part of by way of an indicator in the PNR…

  5. Wow, UA telling their employees to be nice to certain customers and yet I’m thinking they should be nice to all their customers. Is it that hard to be nice?

  6. If apple is anything like other valley companies I’ve dealt with, they will be livid about United exposing their contract details to the public. It’s so obvious this was a misguided attempt by management to get their flight attendants to stop being apathetic with their service. If I were Johnathan, I’d be wondering if I still had a job after the contract renewal. I guess it begs the question why the flight attendants don’t get paid more on such a lucrative route.

  7. You dont need to point them in the manifest. Its easy for everone to recognize an Apple nerd guy onboard

  8. Crews do now have the ability to receive significant personalized data about individual travelers on their Link devices (iPhone 8 Plus).

    Additionally, Apple has lots of other perks at United – a decided travel desk(reservations), and things like private check-in counters at SFO. Plus plenty of elite level benefits including GS status being handed out.

  9. sure…. go tell them how amazing DL is … the airline that doesn’t even know to serve AAPL’s 2nd most demanded destination (HKG), from any hub, with any metal, in any level of frequency. (now queue the DL snowflakes proclaiming how much better KIX is than HKG. (and I laugh super hard for any of their “justifications” cuz me and my other half are from KIX and HKG hhahahah)

    And as for Singapore, I’m sure the DL sales folks would have a lovely kool-aid story to tell regarding how a scenic detour involving SFO-SEA-NRT-SIN is the way to go. If they’re flying SFO-ICN-SIN all the way on the KE, then it’s cheaper for AAPL to directly get a contract instead of layering through someone else.

  10. Just get rid of flight attendant union and all of a sudden, even grandma flight attendants will suddenly be super nice. ;). I could really careless if these flight attendants are easy on the eyes or not. What I care about is good service. There is no incentive for US3 flight attendants to give good service… especially AA and UA, while unions cover their asses.

  11. Yes we’ve been told to “surprise & delight” the fruit brands employees which are all considered high value flyers as the contract is up for renewal.

  12. “their retention and acquisition are a top priority as we work to defeat our competitors in this highly competitive market.”

    Does United give management competition law training? Because a lawyer would tell advise against the use of phrases such as “defeat our competitors”.

  13. @henry LAX:

    The moment you use the term “snowflake” in any non-weather-related context these days, you’ve already lost your argument.

  14. This whole incident will give apple a upper hand in contract negotiations starting this month (as per the article). Interesting timing…

    With United’s upcoming daily SFO-DEL flight…I m wondering how much (if any) influence Apple has on United for new routes; considering Foxconn announced a new manufacturing facility in southern India which will specifically build iPhones.

    Any thoughts?

  15. @ HenryLAX’s rambling post is less about United, Delta, or anything else related to flying and more an excuse to show off he knows Apple’s stock symbol (since he probably owns like 10 shares) and also that he’s from Asia and somehow automatically knows all about air travel in the region.

  16. The only think I’m seeing referenced here is “Apple Global Services” customers. Global Services, as well as all tiers in Mileage Plus, are visible on manifests. I would hope that UA is recognizing all GS members personally – that’s sort of the point of GS, isn’t it?

    For those saying “Shouldn’t they be nice to *all* customers?” you’re missing the point. Yes, obviously crew should be nice to all customers, however enhanced recognition is something that causes an good emotional reaction – well, that’s the intention at least. When I was a 1K for the first/most part of the aughts, I always appreciated getting a business card with a note or a note from a pilot or crew member. I have no idea if United still does this for 1Ks or GS members in general (aside from Apple), but it’s a practice that can maybe help, and cannot possibly hurt. I’m no UA Fanboy by any stretch of the imagination (I’ve largely stopped flying United years ago), but I think they’re on the mark here.

    And, actually, I’m with Santastico, who says, above “Feel sorry that Apple employees have to fly United.” I agree.

  17. I for one cancelled my UA flight today due to this….I will not piss in the pocket of an airline which does not genuinely cares for my business and does not extends service as such…I guess only option left will be a Netjets membership…

  18. With slowing Apple sales, the brewing trade war with China, and the leak of sensitive travel info by United, I’m inclined to think United will see reduced travel revenue from Apple in the next contract year.

  19. Screw this, a GS with million of dollars account is going to be pissed. Moving business to DL or AA where everyone is treated better. Unless special care means pulling a David Dao on GS.

    Time for AA and DL to act fast on the $10-17 million group. All I can say is, one of those are pisssed and open for more recognition.

  20. For other airlines this revenue do not matter. The new Polaris is a great hard product but coupled with very incompetent service (inflight and ground) will make other airlines getnon corporate crowds.
    United could never compete with fellow Star Alliance members Turkish, Lufthansa, EVA, Thai, Austrian, Swiss and the best ever Singapore!!!
    It’s great this is news because we all could avoid United in the future than traveling with a bunch of Apple employees.

  21. You know it’s always funny reading these comments. Let’s all agree no US airline can hold a candle to most Asian airlines. United isn’t perfect but what airline is? Jeff Smisek ran them into the ground. It takes a long long time to dig out. Apple OK where they going? Who else fly’s non-stop SFO PVG? I thought so.

  22. The reason Apple has 200 Billion in the bank is they squeeze every possible drop out of their vendors. United will pay for this leak with a discount in the pricing and they will stay with United because United is cheaper than the competition. Apple at its heart is a 1970s company. Sales and Marketing folks are more important than Engineering. Engineering is an afterthought – its mostly copying what Android did 2 years back. They also focus on userfriendliness, UX, customer care and marketing but their core strength is Supply Chain Management. Many SCM folks fly every week to the factories. So i dont expect many Apple nerds on these flights. These will be mostly MBAs, accountants and Industrial Engineers. Dont forget Tim Cook is a SCM guy.

  23. United’s only competition for SFO-PVG nonstop is China Eastern 777 (marketed by Delta). I wonder if Apple will now switch to Delta (on China Eastern metal) for that route?

  24. Unless another US airline will fly SFO-PVG, there’s no chance of Tim Cooke switching airlines. It would look really patriotically aweful if they flew a foreign based airline.

  25. @Jerry I’m sure that UA manages to spell Tim Cook’s name correctly which is part of being nice to someone – get their name right! his name is Cook without the ‘e’.

    I was messaging a company today using Facebook messenger yet despite my name being there they misspelt it incorrectly at least 3 times. Not a good when I was complaining about the attitude of a staff member…

  26. The only thing I’m seeing referenced here is “Apple Global Services” customers. Global Services, as well as all tiers in Mileage Plus, are visible on manifests. I would hope that UA is recognizing all GS members personally – that’s sort of the point of GS, isn’t it?

    For those saying “Shouldn’t they be nice to *all* customers?” you’re missing the point. Yes, obviously crew should be nice to all customers, however enhanced recognition is something that causes an good emotional reaction – well, that’s the intention at least. When I was a 1K for the first/most part of the aughts, I always appreciated getting a business card with a note or a note from a pilot or crew member. I have no idea if United still does this for 1Ks or GS members in general (aside from Apple), but it’s a practice that can maybe help, and cannot possibly hurt. I’m no UA Fanboy by any stretch of the imagination (I’ve largely stopped flying United years ago), but I think they’re on the mark here.

  27. Airlines definitely know what corporate account pax are booked on, especially if it’s a high valued account.

    I know that at SEA, Amazon and Microsoft employees have their own check-in country for both Delta and Alaska.

    I just wonder how much this leak messed up United’s attempts to get the contract renewal. If I were Delta or American right now, I’d be trying to make a move to steal the account.

  28. @ ChrisC

    People are way too precious about how their name is spelled or pronounced (Shakespeare spelled his own name in different ways).

    My surname is vaguely unusual and is mispronounced all the time. Polite check-in staff usually ask me if their mangling of my name is correct: I always assure them that it is. What does it matter how they pronounce it if it’s only a courtesy anyway?

    Misspelling is trickier with tickets/ passports/ security, but otherwise doesn’t matter a damn.

  29. @ Jerry

    “there’s no chance of Tim Cooke switching airlines. It would look really patriotically aweful if they flew a foreign based airline.”

    What gutless capitalism that is. Any company should be willing to fight its corner on business fundamentals, not serve up a crap product but expect people to buy it anyway just because it’s ‘Murican.

    Either we believe in free, open, competitive marketplaces or we don’t. If we want people to buy as a result of appeals to patriotism, let’s stop pretending that we’re a grown-up capitalist economy.

  30. Apple must offer other options than UA. I wonder if any of the Chinese carriers offered Apple nonstop service SJC-PVG since it would be closer than SFO? Is it safe to assume China Eastern offers a great product except for a language barrier issue with cabin crew compared to mediocre, inconsistent, service on UA?

    I was wondering if Apple heavily influenced UA to also start SFO-TLV & SFO-DEL?

  31. Sad that they have to fall back on the jingoistic “foreign flag carriers” language. Maybe those awful foreigners should stop flying United….

  32. @criced: “You dont need to point them in the manifest. Its easy for everone to recognize an Apple nerd guy onboard”

    Try again. I have a relative who is an Apple engineer who used to fly to China weekly. She doesn’t look like a nerd at all. Or even a guy.

  33. From Daring Fireball:

    |But I’ve heard from a few birdies who frequent the SFO-PVG route that “50 seats a day” undercounts the number of Apple employees making this trip, because it’s only counting United. They fly other airlines when those 50 seats are already full, and that’s not uncommon. They also apparently fly a ton on Cathay Pacific because it’s a nicer experience than United.|

  34. I find the United bashing sad. The Polaris product is a big improvement. The lounges are great, and overall the planes are comfortable. Flight attendants are efficient and professional and food is ok. More importantly, they are on time most of time and bags with priority tags generally out before I clear immigration. I couldn’t care less whether there is some expensive champagne or lobster. I want to get through a long flight (Newark to Tokyo is my most common one) comfortably. If you really enjoy good champagne, it is much better on the ground than in the air. If you care about the champagne brand flying, you are insecure and in need of a life. When I was based in HK, I was top tier with Cathay. It was mainly better in economy – in business it wasn’t much different from UA.

    All companies try to treat their top clients well. They would be stupid not to. Why is this a big deal for UA?

  35. So then United makes a take-down complaint to Twitter over this… and Twitter apparently complied!

    Apparently they think that once it’s no longer posted on Twitter, nobody will talk about it anymore (or remember it in the future).

    Makes both companies look like complete idiots.

  36. @ Janet

    I find it weird that anyone would support an airline that thinks it’s ok to beat-up a correctly-seated passenger before dragging him off the plane. That’s one helluva corporate culture.

    And you’re happy to forget that because “they are on time most of the time”? Bizarre priorities.

  37. When you book corporate travel, it will have a flag when it is ticketed with the airline that it is coming from XX company. Because of these certain partnerships (Delta has them too, and both United and Delta publish the additional perks for booking corporate travel with them on company intranets), they want to keep track of how much employees are traveling with them and track revenue by company. Its all about gathering as much data as possible to squeeze out more revenue

    The Green Dot has both of these partnerships, so I get to see them competing for my business by upping the corporate travel perks every so often.

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