Like a 747 loaded to capacity, United Airlines is rising — slowly, steadily and improbably.
“I thought I was imagining it,” says Anne Klein, who works for a marketing agency in Durango, Colo. “But United is listening. It’s trying to improve.”
Klein had two recent customer service experiences that gave her hope. The first, a handwritten thank-you card for her business, slipped to her by a flight attendant. And the second, a response to her request for a $68 refund after one of her flights had been canceled for mechanical reasons. Instead, United sent her more than she asked for: a $100 gift certificate.
Many passengers had all but given up on the airline after a painful merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. United had managed to alienate customers ranging from frequent fliers like Klein to ordinary vacationers, thanks to significant cuts in its loyalty program and new policies that seemingly demanded fees for everything. Not surprisingly, its customer service scores were among the lowest in the industry.
But, in September, United’s new chief executive, Oscar Munoz, said enough was enough.
“Let’s be honest,” he declared in a videotaped message to customers. “The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees. While it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise or our potential.”
The changes have been small, but they’ve added up. In November, the airline eliminated an unpopular $50 processing fee for tickets refunded to passengers after unplanned events such as jury duty, illness or death. In December, it announced that, starting this month, it would serve a choice of snacks to economy class passengers at no additional charge. It also plans to eliminate another charge this month: a $25 fee for ticket receipts.
All the while, United’s management has been asking its customer-facing employees to redouble their efforts to win back customers. And it’s focusing on its core performance, specifically its flight-completion numbers, or the number of scheduled flights actually flown.
“Our customers want reliability from us,” says Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United’s vice president for customers. “It’s on-time performance. It’s a high completion factor.”
During the busy Thanksgiving holiday week, United delivered an on-time performance in the 70th percentile, its highest level in three years, and a 100 percent completion rate. It was no fluke. United’s internal customer service numbers have been climbing steadily since Munoz made his promise: In November, it beat its 30.6-point customer satisfaction goal by two points; in October, it scored a 30.8, exceeding its goal by 1.3 points; and for September, it exceeded its 27.4-point goal by 4.3 points.
United stresses that this is just the first stage of rehabilitating its image, a process that became more challenging after Munoz suffered a heart attack in the fall and temporarily stepped aside as chief executive. But it hopes it’s on the right track.
“Oscar has given us a renewed focus,” says Pineau-Boddison.
So how is United’s initiative going over with its customers? Elizabeth Helsley, a frequent international traveler who works as a business consultant in San Diego, was stunned after one of her bags went missing on a recent flight from Paris to San Francisco by way of Newark. She wasn’t stunned because her bag had gone missing, but by what happened next.