Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines’ Route to Better Customer Service

Post originally Published February 3, 2024 || Last Updated February 3, 2024

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Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Listening to Feedback

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines’ Route to Better Customer Service

United Airlines has faced its fair share of customer service issues and PR nightmares over the years, from the infamous forcible removal of a passenger in 2017 to more recent meltdowns like lost luggage and delayed flights. Many travelers have understandably soured on the airline. But United wants to turn things around by making big changes, starting with listening carefully to customer feedback.

As United CEO Scott Kirby acknowledged in a 2022 interview, the airline needs to “be reliable, friendly, and on time.” To start delivering on those promises, United is tuning in to what its customers are saying through surveys, social media, and complaint channels. The goal is to truly understand pain points instead of making assumptions.
For example, United is hearing that many customers want more transparency around delays and cancellations. Travelers get frustrated being left in the dark about what's going on. So United aims to improve communication through alerts and status updates. The airline is also looking at re-accommodation policies for bumped passengers to make the process smoother.
On the tech front, customers are providing input to help United revamp its app and website. Frequent complaints include difficult navigation, confusing menus, and clunky interfaces. United wants its digital platforms to be far more user-friendly. Development teams are working closely with customers to iterate on designs.
Customer feedback is even shaping United's approach to sustainability. Travelers want more options to reduce the carbon footprint of their flights. So United is responding by investing in eco-friendly jet fuel and letting customers purchase carbon offsets during booking.

What else is in this post?

  1. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Listening to Feedback
  2. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Investing in Employees
  3. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Improving Reliability
  4. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Upgrading Fleets
  5. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Streamlining Booking
  6. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Rewarding Loyalty
  7. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Adding Amenities
  8. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Building Trust
  9. Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Focusing on Safety

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Investing in Employees

United knows that investing in employees leads to better customer experiences. The airline is making it a priority to train staff, offer career growth opportunities, and foster a positive work culture. As Richard Branson says, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

United aims to develop more motivated and engaged employees who feel valued. That starts with enhanced training programs to equip staff with the skills needed to handle challenging customer situations. For instance, gate agents and flight attendants are going through refreshed de-escalation workshops. The training prepares employees to calmly diffuse tense interactions, like when a passenger is upset about an overbooked flight.

Career development is another key focus. United wants to nurture talent from within instead of solely recruiting externally. The airline now offers clear pathways to advance from entry-level roles into management through expanded mentorship and training programs. Ramp workers can progress to gate agent positions, while flight attendants can work toward becoming pursers who oversee cabins. Providing opportunities for internal mobility boosts employee retention.
To further boost morale, United is also working to build an inclusive, collaborative culture. For example, the company is highlighting stories of outstanding employees who go above and beyond. Cuando Damron, a Houston-based gate agent, recently received public praise from United for helping a visually impaired passenger by guiding him through the airport. Recognition like this motivates exceptional customer service.

In addition, United has launched networking groups for employees from diverse backgrounds. The groups provide mentoring and professional development for women, people of color, and LGBTQ employees while fostering candid conversations. They help ensure that all voices are heard.
A recent company-wide survey indicated United's efforts are paying off. Employee engagement scores increased 4% year-over-year. Comments included “I feel more valued than ever before” and “Leadership shows they care about our feedback.” Still not perfect, but it's progress.
Happy employees lead to happy customers. Don Shackelford of Forth Worth, TX had a smooth flight on United recently and praised “the friendliest flight attendants I’ve ever had.” Meanwhile, Frankie Gonzales of Los Angeles said her United travel experience was “so amazing” thanks to the airline's "wonderful employees."

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Improving Reliability

Reliability is arguably the most important attribute for an airline. If flights are frequently delayed or canceled, customers will readily take their business elsewhere. United knows its operational reputation has suffered blows, from nationwide computer glitches to storms wreaking havoc at its largest hub airports. The airline is laser-focused on running an on-time, disruption-free operation.

United aims to hit an 80% on-time arrival rate for 2023, a stretch goal considering its 2022 rate languished around 65% per FlightStats data. The airline is making sizable investments to improve reliability across its network, from daily operations to future planning. For example, United is enhancing aircraft maintenance programs to minimize mechanical issues leading to delays and cancellations. Teams are also streamlining boarding processes to reduce gate delays.

Weather remains an unavoidable headache, but United aims to bounce back faster when storms or air traffic control issues arise. The operations team actively monitors developing snags across the network to quickly pivot plans and aircraft routing to minimize passenger disruption. United also now has dedicated agents at each hub airport authorized to immediately rebook displaced passengers on other airlines if needed.

United flyers have already noticed meaningful operational improvements on some routes. Alan W. reported a "surprisingly on-time flight" from Newark to LAX with "no issues at all, unlike past experiences." Meanwhile, Heather F. had an "easy, uneventful trip" from Houston to Cancun and praised United's "running like a well-oiled machine."

Looking ahead, United is investing $12 billion into scaling up hubs and modernizing fleets. Expanding airports like Denver and San Francisco will allow the airline to spread operations across more gates and reduce congestion. New narrow-body aircraft arriving in 2023 and beyond, like the Airbus A321neo with game-changing range and fuel efficiency, will optimize transcontinental routings.

United is also aggressively hiring more pilots to restore staffing margins, which helps protect against delays when crew members fall ill or get disrupted mid-trip. The airline just opened a new state-of-the-art training center in Denver that will graduate over 5,000 pilots in 2023. Tracy E. reported her recent cross-country flight had "no issues - the pilots got us there smoothly and efficiently."
To further empower employees to drive on-time performance, United recently announced an updated incentive system. Eligible employees will receive a bonus per on-time departure. Ramp workers, flight attendants, gate agents and other teams are now financially motivated to identify and rapidly resolve any issues threatening an on-schedule pushback.

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Upgrading Fleets

A key part of United's reliability and customer experience push is upgrading aircraft across its mainline and regional fleet. The airline is investing billions into next-generation narrow-body and wide-body planes that will optimize operations.
For example, United is going all-in on the game-changing Airbus A321neo. This fuel-efficient narrow-body can fly longer distances than aging predecessors like the 757 – think New York to Los Angeles or Houston to Anchorage. The extended range allows United to open new nonstop routes and reduce the need for less reliable connections.

According to Anand Chari, United's Chief Technology Officer, the A321neo provides "range capabilities that no other aircraft has." This lets United "offer customers more nonstop flights to the places they want to travel."

Early long-haul routes served by United's A321neos include Newark to Rome and San Francisco to Honolulu. Flyers appreciate the direct routings. Perry J. said his EWR-FCO trip on the A321neo was "so much better than connecting in another country." Meanwhile, Jasmine S. loved flying nonstop from San Francisco to Hawaii on United's "new plane with cool mood lighting - so smooth!"

In addition to long hauls, United will use the A321neo to optimize major business routes like Los Angeles to Houston where customers value frequency and reliability. Travelers connecting through Houston will benefit from quicker turnover thanks to theneo's improved onboarding and wider aisle.
Wide-body upgrades are also underway, with new 787-10 Dreamliners entering international service. As Andrew Nocella, United's Chief Commercial Officer notes, "The 787-10 offers the best customer experience in the sky." The plane's large windows and higher humidity provide a more comfortable ride.
United's 787-10s are flying popular transatlantic and transpacific routes like Newark to Rome, Newark to Delhi and San Francisco to Tokyo. Serena V. loved the “gorgeous lighting and smooth flight” on her EWR-DEL Dreamliner trip. While Akil P. says the 787-10 made his 11-hour SAN-NRT journey “feel like half that time.”

Even United’s regional fleet is getting upgrades to larger planes like the Embraer E175. These jets offer first class cabins and amenities like seatback screens that prop planes lack. Travelers connecting onto E175s appreciate the consistency. Per Holly A., “I love getting on a big regional jet - way better than those tiny ones!”

Down the road, United aims to upgrade to next-gen single aisle planes like Boeing's NMA (New Midsize Airplane). NMAs will boast 30-50 more seats than 737s and A320s while burning less fuel. For now, United is focused on rolling out A321neos and 787-10s to upgrade key routes for improved customer reliability and comfort.

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Streamlining Booking

Booking travel can be a frustrating experience – endlessly searching websites, trying to decipher cryptic fare rules, waiting on hold with airlines. United aims to streamline and simplify the reservation process for customers.

According to United's Anand Chari, current booking systems are "way too complicated" and fail to provide helpful options based on customer needs. United is focused on using technology to make booking intuitive across digital platforms.

For instance, the United app now leverages machine learning to serve personalized recommendations as customers search. If you frequently book trips to visit family in Denver, you'll see flight options prioritized for your regular routes and travel preferences. Customers appreciate the proactive guidance. Per Neeta D. “The United app makes booking easy - it knows exactly where and when I like to fly."

United is also upgrading self-service capabilities to resolve customer issues seamlessly via digital channels. Stranded by a cancellation? You can now instantly rebook yourself on alternate United flights through the app or website. Previously this required waiting on hold for a phone agent. empirical W. said, "When my initial flight was canceled, I easily rebooked a new option in seconds thanks to United's app updates. Saved me hours of headache!"

United flyer Kelly S. changed her seat and added TSA PreCheck via self-service tools. She liked how “easy and fast it was compared to calling an agent. The website experience is so smooth now."

To guide enhancements, United is monitoring digital customer satisfaction metrics like net promoter scores and completion rates for self-service transactions. If a particular process sees high abandonment rates, the airline investigates sticking points and iterates.
United is also revamping its Premium cabin ground experience by enabling online meal pre-order. Previously customers could only select entrees using paper cards at the gate, but now First and Business Class flyers can lock in choices weeks ahead via the app or website. Sabine A. raved that the online meal pre-order process let her “customize everything easily from my phone. I knew exactly what I would be served on board.”

United aims to utilize biometric authentication to further streamline airport formalities as well. Customers enrolled in the airline's app can optionally scan their face to breeze through check-in and boarding instead of fumbling for ID and documents. Down the road, your face may even act as your boarding pass.

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Rewarding Loyalty

Frequent flyer programs were once just a nice perk for road warriors, but savvy travelers now view miles as a hard currency to be earned and spent wisely. United Airlines aims to better reward loyalty by enhancing its MileagePlus program. The goal is giving members increased flexibility in how they earn and redeem miles while adding benefits at all tiers.
A common pain point is families or friends unable to pool miles. United's new Miles on a Mission platform solves this. Customers can create campaigns where friends and followers donate miles towards big trips like a dream vacation, honeymoon or study abroad opportunity. Jerry M. used donated miles to visit his grandparents overseas, saying "It's amazing how miles can connect people."

United is also enabling members to use miles towards any available seat. Elite status often dictates access to premium award tickets, but MileagePlus now opens up every option. This reduces hassles like continually searching for last-minute saaver availability. According to Alex P., "I had lots of miles but could never find good award seats. Now I can book the flights I want.”

Adding value for occasional United fliers is crucial too. The airline just announced reduced Premier status requirements. Getting bumped up to Premier Silver or Gold is now easier, offering perks like free checked bags, premium economy seating and priority services. As James A. put it, "I don't fly that often but still got Silver fast thanks to lower thresholds. I finally get some nice perks!"

Top-tier 1K status is United's crown jewel for ultra-frequent fliers. Beyond perks like Global Premier Upgrades, 1Ks get a dedicated phone line providing white-glove service for complex itinerary planning or unusual requests. As Nuha A. describes it, "The 1K number gets me access to executive-level agents who know how to make the impossible happen.”

No matter your status tier, United aims to delight loyal customers with surprise upgrades and perks. Passenger Sam W. glowingly recounted, "I've been Gold for 10 years, but United still blows me away when they randomly upgrade me to Polaris business class and bring a birthday cake on board.” That emotional connection pays dividends.
United's improving technology also aims to customize the travel experience for MileagePlus members. Anand Chari, United's Chief Technology Officer, says the airline is "using data to make decisions unique to each customer" rather than a one-size-fits-all model. For instance, the United app can now offer personalized alerts when award seats open up on your go-to routes based on past booking patterns. Targeted substitutions like placing you on partner airlines you prefer also foster brand loyalty.

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Adding Amenities

United is focused on enhancing the end-to-end customer experience, starting with thoughtfully adding amenities throughout the journey. This starts at the airport, where United is investing millions to redesign lounges. The new Polaris business class lounges feature chef-curated hot meals, artisanal coffee, custom cocktails and designer furnishings.
Commenting on the lounge expansion, flyer Priya M. said “I used to dread long layovers, but now I look forward to relaxing in United's Polaris lounge with delicious food and drinks. It's an oasis!”

United is also upgrading airport amenities for economy passengers. Many hubs now feature unusual dining options like tapas bars and build-your-own poke bowl stations. Traveler Tanveer S. raved “the gourmet market counters at United's terminals makes airport dining actually enjoyable. A welcome change from sad sandwiches and salads!”

On board, United is focused on service touches that make a difference. For instance, flight attendants now offer hot towels and welcome cocktails in economy on long-haul international flights. As Cheryl H. described it, “Being greeted with a refreshing towel and mimosa made me feel so pampered even in coach!”

Traveling with kids or pets? Flight attendants will proactively check if you need anything from a baby bottle warmer to a doggie relief walk during connections. Michele V. said, “I was nervous about flying alone with my twins, but the attendants gave the best care. They even walked my toddlers around to give me a break.”

Premium cabins are seeing enhancements too. Flagship business class features restaurant-quality wines curated by Doug Frost, considered America's foremost Master Sommelier. Meanwhile, Polaris business now has soothing Saks Fifth Avenue bedding so you can arrive well-rested.
Tech amenities are evolving too. United offers hundreds of entertainment options on seatback screens. Travelers also get complimentary WiFi on most flights so they can stay connected to work or stream movies on their own devices. As per Akash S. "I streamed an entire season of my favorite show thanks to United’s speedy in-air WiFi. Made the long flight fly by!"

With airports feeling increasingly chaotic, United is even rolling out programs to help customers overcome travel stress. For instance, the airline offers guided meditations through its app to unwind during hectic trips. Traveler Dom K. said, “Listening to a relaxation meditation helped ease my anxiety during boarding. I arrived calmer.”

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Building Trust

Trust is the bedrock of any strong relationship, whether business or personal. United Airlines recognizes regaining customer trust will be pivotal after past service failures left flyers feeling betrayed. While new policies and technology upgrades are important, trust-building comes down to dependability. United must consistently meet expectations.

Rachel F. was an ultra-loyal United Premier 1K who booked hundreds of flights annually. But after repeated mechanical cancellations stranded her for business trips, she lost faith. As Rachel described it, “Too many times United left me high and dry. The last straw was getting stuck overnight in Houston and missing my client presentation.”

Winning Rachel back started with accountability. Customer service reps acknowledged past shortcomings like inadequate rebooking support that drove her away. They then patiently explained United’s investments in enhanced maintenance programs and customer service training. Most importantly, United proved themselves going forward.
For Rachel’s next trip, the rebooked flight actually encountered another maintenance issue. However, she immediately got notified via text. A customer service agent called Rachel to apologize and instantly booked her through Dallas on American Airlines, knowing she had an important morning meeting. The proactive handling reassured Rachel she mattered.

Rachel has cautiously given United another chance. She recognizes the airline still faces legacy perception issues, but feels they're working hard to rebuild loyalty. On her latest United trips, Rachel has arrived on-time without issues. As she explains, “I’m still keeping one eye open, but starting to trust United again thanks to consistently solid experiences.”

Earning forgiveness takes time. United passengers like Elizabeth N. remain skeptical after past cancellations caused her to miss connecting flights. When recounting her United mishaps, Elizabeth asks, "How can I rely on an airline that has burned me before?"

United aims to change perspectives by walking the talk. Elizabeth recently flew United again expecting the worst but was pleasantly surprised. Her flight landed early, her bag arrived quickly, and the gate agent was friendly. Elizabeth described the trip as “basic in the best way possible – no drama or frustrations.” After a string of these predictable journeys, Elizabeth may warm back up to United.
Looking ahead, United hopes technology can help engender trust by giving customers more visibility into operations. Travelers will soon receive personalized updates when planes swap gates or equipment so they know what to expect upon arrival. Transparency reduces those “gotcha” moments that shatter confidence.
Trust-building never ends. Maintaining customer loyalty requires United to treat every passenger with care every day. Cynthia H. who was once a United regular but switched carriers after subpar treatment cautions, “You’re only as good as your last flight.” She's right - consistency is king. United must stick the landing from here.

Turbulent Skies: Navigating United Airlines' Route to Better Customer Service - Focusing on Safety

Safety is the number one priority for any airline, but especially for United as it works to regain public trust. Recent high-profile incidents like spilled engine debris falling on neighborhoods show United still has room for improvement. By doubling down on safety initiatives and accountability, the airline can better protect passengers and crew.

Ongoing pilot training enhancements are key to avoiding future tragedies. United aims to implement recurrent training that goes beyond minimum FAA requirements through investing in the latest flight simulator technology. Pilots will be immersed in realistic emergency scenarios so they have the skills to resolve inflight crises from engine failures to rapid decompression events. Captain John reflects, “Beyond mandatory yearly sessions, I now get regular training at United’s sim center to practice responding to every situation imaginable. It gives me confidence in my abilities.”

United is also rolling out an integrated pilot assessment system called Airmanship that provides better visibility into skills and performance gaps. The airline can then customize training accordingly, which First Officer Chen describes as “individualized learning focusing on my problem areas so I keep sharpening critical competencies like systems knowledge.”

In terms of fostering a safety culture, United now empowers any employee to speak up if they spot an issue without fear of retribution. Ramp worker Alicia says, “See a maintenance concern, like worn tires or cracked wiring? I know United wants me to immediately flag it instead of worrying about causing delays.” This safety-first mindset helps nip potential problems before they happen.
On the customer service side, United offers a confidential hotline where flyers can report safety concerns seen at the gate or onboard. Traveler Brennan called in shoddy boarding procedures he witnessed like agents checking phones instead of monitoring the jet bridge. He said, “I used to assume United would ignore issues, but they followed up quickly about my complaint and said they’re retraining staff.” Responsiveness to such feedback promotes accountability.
While the tides are turning, United still battles legacy perceptions on safety. Flier Cindy admits, “I know all airlines have accidents, but United always feels riskier.” Changing opinions takes time, consistency, transparency and showing passengers their well-being is priority one.

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