United Airlines wants you to believe it's sexy (its employees don't like that)

For your next business trip, you'll surely consider United now. Or will you?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
United airplane on the runway.

Sexy now?

United Airlines/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

My friend Kevin had his late-evening United Airlines flight cancelled last week, at the very last moment.

The ostensible reason was weather. His fear was that, though there was some rain around, the pilots and cabin crew had timed out and the airline had no one to replace them.

He called customer service. There, a very nice man told him to go to the ticket counter and talk to a representative. 

Kevin explained there was no one at the ticket counter, to which the nice man on the phone exclaimed: "Whaaaaatttt?"

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Kevin arrived home a day later than scheduled. I tried to soothe him by saying, "Please don't worry, Kevin. United is sexy now."

He replied with a withering gurn.

What could I do but explain that United's image has now completely changed. Why, it's just signed a partnership with Emirates, something The Points Guy described as "once unthinkable."

Let's be friends. Let's be sexy

US airlines and their Middle Eastern brethren have enjoyed something of a standoff for quite a few years. Please try and maintain your dignity when I tell you the problem seems to have been that the home governments of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways garlanded these airlines with large amounts of money.

Yes, and not just during the pandemic.

But, back to the sexy. To celebrate this fine new union, United and Emirates released an uncontrollably glossy ad, adorned with impossibly glamorous pilots and flight attendants.

Here are ridiculously alluring United employees getting out of limousines, sauntering through an airport, and encountering their new Emirates partners, as Frank Sinatra sings, "Come Fly With Me."

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Is this how their lives are now going to be? It seems so. Everyone is so happy.

This is the dawn of a new era. This signifies that United will now offer a completely elevated experience, doesn't it?

Who am I to say?

I can tell you that Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates, said: "I'm not worried. Emirates has been a great force in the industry for restoring service and we continue to see improvements from others. United is serious about its soft product and will continue to make strides."

We're not moved

Get ready, then. It's a new dawn, a new era, come fly with United for your next business trip.

Remember those incredibly inviting, happy pilots and flight attendants in the ad? Well, their unions, and the unions representing all other United employees, offered a drier reaction.

They penned a joint letter, invitingly entitled: United – Emirates Codeshare: Labor is Watching.

No, the tone of the letter wasn't more friendly than its title. Sample: "After years of highlighting the unfair business practices of state-owned enterprises (SOE) such as Emirates Airlines and other Middle East carriers, United's announcement of a new codeshare agreement demands scrutiny."

What kind of scrutiny? This kind: "To protect the jobs of U.S. airline workers, there must be continued financial transparency and improved labor standards that ensure fairness is maintained in all Open Skies and codeshare agreements."

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Surely, there was a positive word somewhere in the letter, you wonder. There was. The word was "tremendous."

The context? It was this: "These subsidies put U.S. airlines at a tremendous economic disadvantage and threaten U.S. airline workers' jobs. American workers can compete with any foreign airline when on a level playing field. We cannot compete against entire countries."

I'm not sure about all of that. I don't think I'd choose any US airline over many European ones for a transatlantic flight.

But, in case you hadn't by now grasped that United's employees aren't happy, its unions also offered: "The fact remains that there are currently no independent labor unions in the United Arab Emirates. This has led to a systemic, unacceptable assault on airline workers' rights, with alarming accounts of unfair labor practices and intimidation by employers."

That doesn't sound so sexy at all, does it?

We need to talk about Kevin

Still, United is making strides. It's now promising you'll never have to stand in line to talk to its customer service staff. That's enticing, right?

But let's leave the last word to Kevin. I sent him this new United ad and asked for his view. He knows a thing or two about brands and business.

His verdict: "This is a huge PR win for United and an unforced error for Emirates. Emirates has a reputation for first- class service that runs throughout every aspect of the airline -- even if you're in coach. United is the exact opposite: a 'coach-first' approach that infuses everything with the feeling of cheapness and indifference in the name of expediency. The closest example I could think of is when Mercedes merged with Chrysler, which frankly tarnished the reputation of both companies."

Yes, Kevin flies a lot for business.

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