United Airlines - Chance for Redemption or More of the Usual

As you probably know, by now, I've been a none too happy United Airlines flyer for many years, usually working to the point I get to a Premier Executive status and then I start flying other airlines.

As you probably know, by now, I've been a none too happy United Airlines flyer for many years, usually working to the point I get to a Premier Executive status and then I start flying other airlines.

I've spent a lot of time using United Airlines as cannon fodder for my "bad service experiences" posts because they have historically and by comparison to many other airlines - notably Virgin America, Southwest, the airline that they are now merging with Continental - suffered in that comparison.

I've trashed United to probably hundreds of thousands of people over the past 7 or 8 years of speeches. One of my 2009 ZDNet blog posts where I wrote about United's egregiously bad behavior with me and others probably got more response than any other post I've ever done (except perhaps one other).

But...I still fly United. I like to say that the reason I fly United is because I'm already so vested in the frequent flier program that I just don't want to waste my investment. And, like many others, who immediately agree with me, that's true. But, if I'm going to be honest with myself and, also, all of you, there is a reason for that too. I like the extra legroom of Economy Plus.

For those of you who don't know it, United on most of its major flights, has seats that have been designed to do no more than give the patrons who have their butts parked in them, 5" of extra legroom. The difference is something like 33" regular seat, 38" Economy plus. There are no further privileges than that. Its not business, its not first class. Its more legroom. That can make a huge difference to flight comfort, especially to a frequent traveler like me. Its the difference between being cramped and being relatively comfortable (its not perfect by far). Its the difference between not minding the flight and hating it.

To get the Economy Plus seats, you either have to buy them at a nominal fee when they are available OR you have to have an Elite frequent flyer status. It keeps me coming back - as does preferred boarding and occasional upgrades. But it is Economy Plus that is my game changer. I've had that discussion with many others and they tell me the same thing. That extra legroom is what they like about United. The complaints far exceed the billing and cooing but the that extra comfort is a HUGE plus, not a small one.

SO..... This is what I now hear, from a good source. United, of course, recently bought and is now in the process of merging with Continental. They have trumpeted this in ads and even on the safety video that precedes all flights. They have stated clearly to Elite flyers that for now things are the same but expect some changes as the merger continues to evolve.

Interestingly, and you'll see why in a minute, they don't say "further benefits" nor do they say "positive" changes. It's all bland, neutral and entirely colorless. Know why? Because one of the changes being contemplated is the elimination of Economy Plus because Continental flights don't have it. Now, I'm not sure whether that's the causal relationship, but that's the reason for the discussion.

Now, we reach a nodal point for United. IF they eliminate Economy Plus they are doing it, once again, for cost efficiency's sake, not the customer's. A decision that has been made by them that way over and over and over again. Which is why their service experience is horrible and pales by comparison to Virgin America's, or Southwest's.

IF they keep it and either retrofit Continental or just leave it as is, they will be doing what the customers' demand, not cost efficiency, which in their case would not only be seen as a total shock but an awesome surprise - probably garner then a great deal of customer good will.

IF they eliminate Economy Plus, they will eliminate customers like me - and I will lead a campaign for that to happen. IF they keep it, I will congratulate them publicly on their first wise decision in awhile and keep on flying them - and maybe even encourage a few to fly United or to keep flying United. But I wonder if they've bothered to proactively query their customers about their thinking.

No one is saying they have to kowtow to their best flyers - but getting their input would be a HUGE step forward for this airline. Not just going to their site to read what customers say, but an active campaign via Twitter, Facebook, email to top customers and ask for their input. PROACTIVE. That's spelled p-r-o...United, you get the picture, right?

This is a chance for United to either redeem itself a bit and keep a service that many of their customers enjoy and expect - or be their usual model of service experience decrepitude and be non-responsive. I challenge them to talk to their customers before they make what they are probably not seeing is a decisive moment whether or not the next time I and others are writing blog posts, we're writing it from either a United jet....or a Virgin America jet. Their call.