Late last week I spent a day or so with United Airlines at their media day. It was a chance to listen to top executives share their thoughts on where the airline is going. There was also a chance to tour the new CRJ-550, a plane business travelers are really going to like. It’s an innovative way to think about how the airline configures planes. With some restrictions on what they were allowed to do, I was definitely impressed. The airlines have definitely been known for replication rather than innovation the last few years.
United Airlines Media Day
United had one entire day dedicated to what the airline has accomplished and where they believe they’re going. Along the way, we heard from many different executives and learned a ton of new info. Here’s what I took away from the day (in no specific order of importance):
1. United Believes Significant Investment Needs To Be Made In Alternative Fuels
Scott Kirby, President of United Airlines, announced a $40MM investment fund for revolutionary technology for alternative fuels. He notes that the airline pays a high price for some alternative fuels right now. But, they believe they need to be paying these prices (and investing) to help spur future innovation.
2. While They’re Waiting, They’re Finding Other Areas of Impact
United has had a program called Eco-Skies. I give them due credit for these efforts. I see plenty of airlines who don’t make an effort to separate recyclable material on their planes. United is looking deeper than that. A small change to business class amenity kits will eliminate 16 tons of plastic per year without any negative customer impact.
3. They’re Adding Bigger Overhead Bins, But It’ll Take A While
With the implementation of checked bag fees, the airlines created a problem years ago where customers tried to carry-on as much as they could to avoid those fees. The addition of seats to many airplanes exacerbated the problem. Airlines tried to solve the problem a bit by restricting the use of overhead bins with Basic Economy tickets, but have largely shrunk away from that. United is currently the holdout amongst the Big 3 for not allowing a full size carry-on bag on Basic Economy fares.
United is adding bigger overhead bins to much of their mainline fleets, but it’s going to take a while. They say that 80% of the fleet will be equipped with larger bins by the end of 2023. The remainder of the mainline fleet won’t receive those bins as they intend to retire those planes within the next 5-7 years. They expect a 1:1 ratio of passenger bags to overhead bin space once a plane has been retrofitted with the new bins. That’s a huge improvement, but it sure is going to take a while.
4. Business Travelers Are Getting Upgrades (Just Not To The Seat They Want)
United notes that they have many more extended legroom seats than their competitors. They also note that 80% of United’s MileagePlus Gold (mid-tier) elite members receive an upgrade….to Economy Plus. That’s no surprise if you’ve been paying attention. The Big 3 domestic airlines are all doing a much better job selling the first class cabin rather than giving it away from free. That means one of the last remaining valuable benefits of elite status continues to get even more rare.
5. United Is Going To Fly Really Big Planes To Disney World
United plans to fly a Boeing 777-200 between Newark (EWR) and Orlando (MCO). Next year, they’ll fly the plane twice a day, replacing much smaller aircraft that serve the route frequently. With a capacity of over 350 passengers, that would likely double the passengers traveling on those flights versus normal capacity. Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter are in high demand!
6. United is Adding More Flights Around Their Network
United had already announced some interesting international routes earlier this year, including one to Sicily that I have my eye on (my family’s origins can be traced there). Media Day brought even more new routes:
- A 6th daily flight between Newark and London-Heathrow. A great schedule for business travelers.
- Huge growth at their Denver hub. From a high of 420 daily departures in 2019 to 550 in 2020.
- New domestic routes, including:
- Chicago-Santa Barbara
- Chicago-Pasco, WA
- Chicago-Vail CO (Summer)
- Houston-Spokane, WA
- Denver to Nassau, Bahamas starting March, 2020
7. United Will Deliver Your Luggage To A London Marriott
United will roll out a service for Polaris passengers where they will deliver your luggage free of charge to specific London Marriott hotels. There will only be 5 hotels to start with, but they plan to expand. As part of the partnership with Marriott, the hotel chain will place the luggage in your room for you. I haven’t figured out how they’re solving customs issues on this just yet.
8. United’s Connection Saver Will Help You Make Your Flight
United had already announced a program called “Connection Saver” that they’ve slowly been rolling out. On a daily basis, they’re evaluating certain flights as to whether they can push back departure time based on certain factors (ramp crowding, wind speeds) and still arrive on-time. This allows them to wait for passengers in certain situations. By the end of 2019, they intend to notify customers that they’re holding a flight for them. They’ll also be adding “directions” in the app that show the passenger how to get from their arrival gate to their departure gate. These enhancements sound like great features for the occasional traveler.
9. China Isn’t As Good A Market As Some People Thought
United had launched flights to some secondary and tertiary cities in China. They were early into those markets, hoping to seize an advantage. Since then, they’ve pulled back some. Scott Kirby said on stage that they’ve seen “mid single-digit RASM (Revenue Per Available Seat Mile) declines in China”. That sounds like we won’t see anymore new China flights anytime soon. Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, also noted that trade wars don’t always help the airline business. Yup.
10. United Says They Have The Most Female Pilots Of Any Domestic Airlines
I love this stat, but I’m not sure how they would know this (unless the unions publish this data?).
11. United Will Run A Newark To DCA Shuttle-Like Service
They plan to launch next year with 13 daily flights, all on 2-cabin regional jets. These will be a mix of CR7 and CRJ-550 aircraft. They won’t have shuttle amenities, but will have hourly service.
12. Copa Airlines Is A Great Partner, But No Expansion (Yet)
Scott Kirby talked about how strong Panama-based Copa Airlines is as an airline. He was very complimentary of their management team. With the recent big shift in Latin American (Delta stealing LATAM from American) airlines like Copa are sure to be coveted by American Airlines as potential partners. United seems determined not to let that happen. Could that yield a larger partnership between United and Copa? There’s a lot of history there dating back to the Continental days.
13. United Will Allow Charities To Crowdsource Mileage Donations
This is already live on the United website at unitedairlines.com/donate. Miles on a Mission will allow people to build their own fundraising campaigns using United miles. I haven’t played around much with this yet, but it has the potential to be awesome.
14. United Says Recent MileagePlus Changes Are Good For Everyone
I wish I had grabbed a picture of the slide, but they did actually say that almost word for word. They talked about increases in enrollment and how dynamic award pricing is driving more redemption. They also talked about how new qualification requirements for elite status make it simpler to qualify. This was really the one point of the day that stuck out for me as being largely unfounded. Awards to places you want to go (when you actually want to go) are largely more expensive, especially for families. New qualification requirements for elite status increase the spending requirement, which will push many long-time elites down the ranks (and potentially out of the program). The silver lining is the increased flexibility in upgrades for elite members.
The bottom line on MileagePlus changes is that they’ve largely made it more expensive to hold elite status and redeem your miles while not really offering much more in the way of benefits.
15. FAA Certification Of The 737 MAX May Not Be Enough For United
I was busy typing a note about something else Oscar said when I missed his direct quote. Gary Leff was sitting beside me and picked up on it. That has the potential to be a bombshell. Or, it could be as simple as him saying the airline needs to hear Canada’s response before flying the plane to Canada. We definitely need more context here.
16. United Plans 3D Layouts Of All Their Planes
In 2020 you should be able to click on a button in the booking process to get a 3D look inside the plane you’re trying to book. This will be “tail-specific”, in that you’ll be able to see the specific configuration scheduled to fly the route that day. Now, things can definitely change. And, United does have a number of different configurations of the same plane in their fleet. But, this is a pretty cool feature rolling out.
17. They Believe Wi-Fi is Improving
During Q&A, United execs pointed to figures like a steep reduction in compensation for faulty Wi-Fi. That may be true, but I still contend that they’re tracking the wrong data. Along with my own frustrations, I see fellow passengers who really struggle with Wi-Fi reliability. The situation may be improving, but there’s still plenty of progress needed here.
The Final Two Pennies
United Airlines really did cram a ton of information into our day. Things really do seem to be trending up for the airline. They still have problems to fix (ahem, Wi-Fi). As a business traveler who relies on them weekly, it’s frustrating to hear them gloss over these issues. Still, the airline is growing in a lot of exciting places. 2020 should be an interesting year for the airline, especially if the economy continues to chug along nicely. The airline may actually be setting themselves up nicely to navigate through an economic downturn, but probably needs a bit more time to solidify changes and convince customers they’re moving in the right direction.
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