Small Steps Towards a Better International Experience on United

United, having started the rollout of its new first and business class seats, has a long way to go before becoming a true preimum class airline.

Over the next year the ‘soft product’ will be enhanced to follow on improvements in the hard product (seat). New meals, better amenity kits, and even pajamas are supposed to come to international first class in August. Plenty will be invested, things will be better than ever, however every indication is that service will be drawn from the same pool of flight attendants, thus will remain hit or miss at best.

And like the introduction of p.s. service on the New York-JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco routes, my guess is that after an initial boosted investment little cuts will begin to accumulate. My fundamental belief is that United will not be able to sustain a true premium product for more than a year, incremental cost savings will be too tempting and each one individually will be seen as having little effect on the customer experience (but that in total the experience will be greatly diminished).

United is retrofitting 767’s first, 747s are to be completed next, and completion of the 777 fleet is scheduled last. Planned completion is end of 2009, and there will remain a short honeymoon period where United’s international business and first class product will be truly premium at least in comparison to U.S. airlines (perhaps equivelant though not superior to business class on Air Canada, Virgin, and Air New Zealand, and still legions below the business and first class offerings of Singapore, Cathay Pacific, and ANA).

But none of this is new thinking.

What’s noteworthy is that this week United took one small baby step in the direction of improving its first class soft product. Since Monday United’s policy is that international first class passengers may dine when they wish, rather than requiring those passengers to eat at the convenience of flight attendants.

This is an obvious improvement, as it is of course the international standard. On many carriers you not only may have what you wish, but you may mix and match items throughout the flight in your own chosen quantities. United will still only board food such that first class passengers can have a single appetizer and entree.

Still, it represents a culture shift – the idea that service in first class is for the convenience of the customer — that should test the flight attendant waters in advance of hoped-for larger changes to come.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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