United’s Broken Brand

Dell have chosen United Airlines for my flights to Dell World 2012. I’d heard of United Breaks Guitars, but who hasn’t? I figured they weren’t a great airline, but all North American airlines are awful and have been for years. How bad could it be?

As some of you might already know, I’m most of the way through an MBA at Melbourne Business School. For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been up to my eyebrows in Associate Professor Mark Ritson’s Brand Management class. A couple of weeks ago, in a discussion on brand positioning, Prof. Ritson put up a slide showing United Airlines ranked last in customer perception of airlines. And this was after a campaign to revamp the brand.

I was a little alarmed, so I did some digging.


Airline Ratings

The 2012 Airline Quality Ratings has ranked United Airlines as the meanest national carrier in America. Second is Continental, who merged with United in 2010.

I also looked up the report that Prof. Ritson had cited. It was the J.D. Power and Associates North American Airline Satisfaction Survey from 2008. Fast forward to 2012, and United are now second last. More disturbing is that their score dropped from 628 in 2008 to 625 in 2012. The only reason they’re not still last is that US Airways got a a lot worse, dropping from 640 to 614.

The prospect of being stuck in Economy for 23+ hours of travel time, each way, coupled with reports of awful lounge experiences didn’t fill me with joy. I did something I’ve never done before: I shelled out for business class on an international flight.

Rewarding Failure

Why give money to an awful airline? Good question. Here’s my reasoning:

I’ve travelled in Economy internationally on numerous occasions. I flew to the US on Northwest back in 1992 in Economy as part of an orchestra tour when I was a teenager. As a teenager, I didn’t care. I was going overseas for the first time ever, so it was all awesome. And coming back, I’d spent the last 36 hours of the tour squeezing every last bit of fun out of our time in LA before a 16 hour non-stop flight; I was exhausted and slept the whole way back.

I’ve flown Australia-New Zealand on Jetstar because someone else booked the tickets and went for cheap ones. I wouldn’t fly them domestically, but for a 4-ish hour flight with friends to go skiing, they were fine.

A couple of years ago, I spent the better part of a year flying Melbourne-Brisbane every two weeks to work for a Brisbane based client. I flew on both Qantas and Virgin. Qantas had more comfortable seats; on Virgin my bum would tend to go numb after sitting still for 3-4 hours.

Most recently, I flew to the US on Qantas in Economy. It was ok, but not great. The free headphones were basically useless. I could only hear the audio for the in-seat entertainment system over the engine noise by tightly clamping my hands over the speakers, pushing them into my skull. Sleep? Hah! I think I managed a couple of short bursts of maybe 3 hours. Just enough to ensure I didn’t make inappropriate jokes to the lovely US Customs official, as funny as they sounded in my head.

Coming back, I attempted to upgrade myself to business class using frequent flyer points. I failed, because the flight was full, and you can’t upgrade in advance with points on Qantas. However, I’d been given a Premium Economy seat all along and hadn’t noticed. Compared to regular Economy, it was a joy. I’d also had the foresight to buy active-noise-cancelling headphones while in the US, and they were worth every penny. As a bonus, they’re now my regular defence against the concentration-killing evil that is open-plan offices.

Exposed to the difference between regular Economy and Premium Economy, I resolved never to fly Economy over that distance ever again. Yes, I’m getting old and soft. And yes, Qantas got exactly what they were after by giving me a free upgrade: I had tasted the fruit of Premium Economy, and found that I liked it.

But with United, there was no guarantee of Premium Economy, because according to their website, they haven’t finished upgrading all of their 747-400 aircraft. And if I left things to the last minute to try to snag a bargain priced business upgrade, as suggested by the Dell travel agent, I might miss out as I had with Qantas. And then I’d be stuck in a cramped, loud, steel metal tube with 300 or so other humans for over 40 hours. In Economy. On a bad airline.


Life Is Short

I made a choice. Life is too short. I can always make more money, but I’ll never get that time back. Economy might be bearable on a good airline, but on one that’s been rated as consistently awful for years? I just didn’t want to take that chance. So I bit the bullet, and shelled out for a business class ticket on a crappy airline.

Now the ball is in United’s court. I will be keenly observing every aspect of what goes on, not purely because I’ve just spent a large quantity of money and expect to get my money’s worth, but because my MBA studies have made me keenly aware of how things should be done.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

P.S. I just checked out United’s branding page. Oh good god. They’re doomed. For a good laugh, check out their about page. If FORTUNE magazine rates them as World’s Most Admired Airline (admired for what?), what does that say about FORTUNE magazine?

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