I write this letter as someone who has been a rather loyal United customer to date and would generally wish to remain so. I want to make clear at the outset, however, that this loyalty does not allow me to exonerate you of the serious concerns raised by your appalling treatment of Dr. Dao both on your flight and in your subsequent correspondence with employees. Both – and in many ways the latter especially – give me great pause and make me wonder if I can continue to patronize this airline. Unhappily, due to consolidation and other market failures, I may not actually have much choice: the best airline for me is one that offers plenty of direct transcontinental routes out of SFO and a global alliance I can use my resulting frequent flier miles on. Unfortunately, your closest competitors can only meet some of these needs, and thus any threat to take my business elsewhere is generally an idle one.
However, one of the reasons that I became a United customer in the first place, and have remained one more or less happily up to now, is that I like your airline. Flying another carrier always feels like visiting a stranger, whereas I’m used to the operational rhythm of how United works and how it works for me. I like liking it, and I want others to like it too, even if for no other reason than that your success helps improve my own travel experience (more routes, more flights, more amenities, etc.).
But your behavior this week, as well as on some other some other recent occasions, has made it difficult to recommend you, and that is no good for either of us. When passengers have to fly you begrudgingly it is unpleasant for everyone. For us, it makes us impatient, inflexible, and defensive, and thus for your employees, the same. We are all much better off when everyone can be proud to choose United, and that’s what the rest of this open letter is intended to make sure we all can be.
Towards that end, and in response to your announcement that you would be reviewing ways to improve, I have a few specific points to make, all built around that central theme.
The first item to note is that there may be a significant difference in how frequent fliers experience United versus casual ones. As a frequent flier myself there are certain upsides to the frequent flier experience, mostly in terms of streamlining the more aggravating parts of air travel in order to make more of it possible. While I do appreciate those, as I’ve complained before, I think you’ve taken for granted some of your less frequent travelers, even those loyal to you, in a way that removes their incentive to direct their next travel dollar towards you. Similarly I think you’ve also taken for granted your more budget-conscious travelers, both those with status and without. The point of engendering loyalty is so that you can claim as many of our air travel dollars as possible. But by focusing too much on getting them in any one transaction, you make us less willing to give you them on the next, even when that next one might have otherwise been more profitable.
Which brings me to a specific operational point, one that is both related to your current troubles and also where recent years have noticeably degraded the United experience: same day standby. Same day standby used to be free (at minimum it used to be free for Silver). Naturally actually clearing the standby list has always been a crap shoot, and that’s fine, but what isn’t fine is charging passengers for the privilege of solving your own operational problems – which, as this week has shown, can be extremely costly for you, and much more dearly than standby fees could possibly recoup. It makes no sense: you only physically have so many seats available to fly any particular route in any particular day. As the day goes on you end up with fewer and fewer – yet potentially more and more people who want to sit in them (not only do you have the people who purchased those seats, but you also may have people who were themselves late, or for whom their other flights were late, cancelled, or otherwise re-routed, various overbooking situations, staffing challenges, or even walk-ups you might want to be able to sell a last-minute fare to). If you could lessen the pool of people you would potentially need to accommodate on a shrinking pool of inventory, why wouldn’t you? Passengers ready, willing, and able to fly out in earlier, otherwise empty seats are doing you an enormous favor. You should be encouraging it, not *discouraging* it with nickel-and-dime fees. You can still favor high-status travelers (who would be more likely to clear the list), and you can still charge for confirmed same-day standby (which is a very different thing). But to fly out an empty seat with a passenger left behind in the airport seems penny-wise, pound-foolish – as well as rather spiteful. And as you are learning, no one will sympathize with an overbooked situation you created yourself.
Moreover, in general nickel-and-diming seems a poor way to go. I understand that you need to keep ticket prices competitive, and doing so may require pulling out from the base fare certain “perks” we used to take for granted as an integral part of the air travel experience. You have obviously learned, though, that there are limits to how much of the experience can be a la carte (for instance, you have reintroduced snacks). But the overall point here is that by and large, for both these small issues and for the big ones, you need to treat customers as partners, not adversaries, which you seem to have done more and more for the past 16 and a half years.
We are all still suffering from the effects of September 11, and your airline is no exception, having been affected so personally and deeply. The bonds of trust in our entire nation became frayed that day, and there are few places where those tensions have been more exposed than in airports. But that is all the more reason for you to make your employees and customers all feel like we’re on the same team. You are a business that profits when people travel, yet traveling has by and large gotten increasingly miserable, in no small part due to the incredible power imbalances between passenger and every single authority they come into contact with as part of their journey. As this week showed, that power imbalance can be a violent one, to the point where any supposed safety rationale that purports to justify it is defeated.
First, you yourself should not pose as yet another punitive authority we must deal with. We are customers and we give you money. What we need is good communication and good value for that money, so work to improve both. Secondly, be our ally. We are largely defenseless against further strains imposed on the travel experience. Understand that their imposition on us ultimately imposes on you, so stand with us in resisting authority that increasingly treats travelers as criminals. At any rate don’t abet such treatment by using it to “solve” your own self-created business challenges.
Air travel is a wonderful, miraculous thing. It is only the smallest blip in the history of the human experience that we are able to reach every corner of the planet in a matter of hours. No one should be glib about what air travel offers to humanity: not those who board planes, nor those who operate them, nor our policymakers who make the rules affecting our ability to realize this amazing benefit of modern civilization.
And that is why I write this letter. I want you to succeed, not only because of how much richer our relationship has made my life – I’ve given you money, and you’ve given me the world – but because I want to make sure that you, and other enterprises like you, can remain available to continue to make the world richer as well.