United Airlines got customers truly excited. Then came the embarrassment

Your company may have good reason to make customers feel optimistic. But please, don't get carried away.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Gorgeous, no?

(A screenshot from United's launch video)

Chris Matyszczyk/screenshot

I haven't felt like this for a long, long time.

About United Airlines, that is.

I woke up on Tuesday to hear the airline is buying a lot of Boeing planes. Up to 200 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and 100 more 737 Max flying machines too.

The mere notion that more and more planes will feel new, if not entirely plush, gave me shivers. Anything that makes the actual experience of airline travel better has to be a good thing. A great thing, perhaps, in relative terms.

In It For The Long-Haul?

Americans have, for far too long, been forced to fly in single-aisle tubes, a desperately uncomfortable way to travel any longer than a couple of hours.

Flying on a 787 long-haul can be a quite relaxing experience and this, crowed United, is "the largest widebody aircraft order by a US carrier in commercial aviation history."

Why, in its fine launch video, United felt the need to explain that "widebody = two aisles."

You might have forgotten. You might now add a gosh to your wow.

United's announcement caused me to search for the one thing that might make this Tuesday even better -- the words of United CEO Scott Kirby.

Kirby has rather taken to being United's CEO, after being passed over for the top job at American. One senses he relishes the idea of making United America's flagship carrier.

I only mention this because in one of his Tuesday commentaries, he reportedly mused that United was "the world's leading global airline and the flag carrier of the United States."

Piloting Success.

I, though, concentrated the hardest on Kirby's interview with CNBC.

He began: "This is really just another step in everything United did during the pandemic."

"Wait," I hear you snort, "didn't the airline take a lot of government money and then offer early retirement to quite a few valuable employees?"

No, no, that's not relevant.

This is the part that was more moving. Kirby explained that, during the pandemic, United's focus was on "buying airplanes, building simulators, the only airline to negotiate a deal with pilots."

At this my ears made an involuntary twitch toward each other. Was Kirby getting so carried away that he was lauding his airline for negotiating a deal with pilots?

This felt a tad odd. It's true that United did negotiate a deal with its pilots, but then the pilots wondered whether pilots at other airlines were getting better contracts and backed away from the deal.

Indeed, just last week, Kirby popped out to chat with his airline's pilots -- and other United employees -- and they all turned their backs on him. Which some might deem especially classless behavior and United's pilots union deemed entirely appropriate as "the company has turned its back on pilots."

Why would Kirby want to crow about a deal that doesn't appear to have actually happened?

Especially as the United Airlines Union Coalition countered with: "Money for new planes, money for supersonic jets without engines, money for yet-to-be-approved electric taxis. None of these planes will fly without the people of United Airlines."

Would you be surprised to hear that immediately after Kirby's announcement, the pilots kept on expressing their displeasure? Why, the following day, United's pilots picketed at Newark airport.

Positive Thinking Needs Accurate Talking.

This is what happens, I suppose, when you get so wrapped up in your positive attitude that everything looks like a success when it may not (yet) be.

Still, let's get back to the excitement, as much as we're able. And, well, the tinge of embarrassment.

Kirby told CNBC that rival airlines wouldn't be able to order from Boeing now because United has taken up so much production capacity. He said: "We thought the recovery would be real fast. And we realized early that there were going to be huge constraints on supply -- pilots, the ability to manufacture airplanes, air traffic control saturation."

Ah, so United knew there'd be a pilot shortage -- partly created by releasing a lot of experienced pilots?

For this lay flyer, it does sound as if the marketing has slipped ahead of reality a little too far. United has clearly done many things well, but why, oh, why laud negotiations that don't seem to have succeeded?

Still, Kirby insisted: "It's going to be really hard for anyone to catch up to us now."

There you have it, United customers, you really have only one choice now. It's United or nothing.

And, oh look, United was last week named the world's second-best airline by passenger claims company AirHelp.

I wonder how the airline's pilots feel about that.

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