United Airlines May Delay a Flight for You the Next Time You’re Running Late

United Airlines President Scott Kirby spoke this morning at the JP Morgan Aviation, Transportation, & Industrials Conference and what’s notable is that instead of just talking about the airline’s route network — talking about earning their ‘natural share’ of revenue just by flying — he talked about earning customers’ business by delivering better service.

United’s ‘core4’ metrics put safety as their top priority but then caring is above operation and efficiency. It was surprising to hear Kirby tell analysts that they ‘can’t see it in spreadsheets’ but this drives customers to choose to fly United when they have a choice. Hearing Kirby talk about things beyond the spredsheet is… uncharacteristic.

But he spent much of his presentation talking about the ariline’s strengths being cultural and delivering service. That historically hasn’t been a United Airlines strength, and they’re at a disadvantage in my view relative to Delta which is far less unionized, and that’s without even walkig back through recent events like the David Dao beating, shoving an elderly man to the ground and threatening to steal his miles if he complained, and killing dogs.

Kirby laid out several initiatives, entirely apart from investments in premium physical product like lounges and the addition of premium seats.

  • One of my favorite advances at United is their “Every Flight’s a Story” project to push our real information to customers about delays rather than just declaring that something was ‘operational’ or ‘weather’. Using detailed English they explain the weather event including where it is (so a customer understands what’s happening when the airline declares a weather delay but looks outside and sees blue skies).
  • Kirby shared that United is trialing a project called “Dynamic D0” in Denver that will allow the airline to delay some flights to allow late-arriving customers not to misconnect.It’s certainly true that a gate agent who might delay a flight may lack important information about the consequences: whether there are passengers on that flight with tight connections at their next destination, what crew are scheduled to be doing down line, what sort of weather patters a flight may need to travel around – so airlines don’t like agents making the decision.

    A year ago I wrote about American Airlines CEO Doug Parker schooling a pilot on why those in command of the aircraft shouldn’t make the choice to delay a flight. That needs to be left up to operations people with all of the relevant facts in front of them. That doesn’t mean those people will take the time to do it, though.

    United is testing automation to determine when to proactively delay a departure, for instance because ‘5 or 6 customers are going to be 5 minutes late to the gate and we can make up that time’ in the air.

Kirby also threw shade at previous management for abandoning New York JFK, saying they had a mandate to limit capacity and their transcon flights weren’t strong performers (he suggested though they were break-even not money losing) but giving up on those flights meant losing corporate contracts from businesses who would fly United Los Angeles – London. (That’s the essence by the way of my argument about why American Airlines appears to be spiraling to irrelevance at New York JFK.)

Before you think this is an entirely new Scott Kirby it’s worth remembering that United just removed a flight attendant from business class just a month ago. They aren’t investing in service across the board. But the emphasis is notable.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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  1. Kirby is realizing that a strong brand can charge revenue premiums in a competitive space. I’d guess a spreadsheet told him that spreadsheets can’t measure everything.

  2. @Gary,

    As you alluded to, talk is one thing, while actions speak louder than words.

    So, seeing is believing and I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see if Kirby’s words are wisps in the wind because they make for nice PR pull quotes for readers and/or sound bites in a speech or on a cable news business story – or if flyers begin experiencing a meaningful (and definitive) change in actual service product delivery themselves.

    However, what’s missing from Kirby’s oh so pretty and nice sounding speechifying is anything about United’s dreadful cabins that have become so awful that recently one of the least “avgeeky” friends I know initiated a discussion not just about how awful their recent flight was in general terms, but how much they absolutely HATED the seatback-less IFE, hard as cement, teeny tiny Main Cabin seats they were stuck in aboard United’s hated every bit as much as American’s (so NOT an) “Oasis” Boeing 737s.

    And I mean HATED that United 737 without seatback IFE with the hard as cement seats and 30” row pitch!

    So much so, they told me they complained to the airline.

    But here’s the thing: this close friend is NOT a complainer by nature, and as noted they’re the furthest thing from an avgeek as anyone I know can be.

    Oh, and they’re barely 5-feet tall and thin as a rail, too.

    So I was gobsmacked when they told me they felt like a little ball with their knees in their chest on that (hated) flight.

    Gobsmacked!

    Anyhow, unless Kirby’s words find me hearing better things than this from my decidedly NON-avgeek/non-airline industry oriented friends and family going forward I’ll just assume these were nothing more than pretty sounding words… 😉

  3. I was not actively aware of the “Every Flight’s a Story” initiative but I must say I am a huge fan after seeing it this past weekend in the app. I had travel booked with United and I was shocked with the level of detail being provided about why my flight (or an inbound flight) was even the slightest bit delayed.

    For me as a customer, being treated with respect and honesty is second only to operational performance. Providing customer’s with high level answers to their questions will go a long way in rebuilding the foundation of this relationship which for many, is totally broken.

  4. This is nothing. We delay flights all the time. And we even give you rolling updates every 15 minutes starting with the first delay notification at the scheduled departure time.

  5. Anecdotally I have noticed an uptick in delays due to connecting pax. At least 2 of last week’s evening EWR-PWM flights were held. And I’ve also experienced it firsthand on that same flight.

  6. I honestly don’t know what the statistics are but let us say at present I am delayed 1 out of 25 flights for others on delayed connections. I will not be a happy camper if that rate double or trebles. That is the flip side of this seeming passenger oriented policy. I would prefer to be in trouble once ion 25 times than face frequent delays.

  7. At least in the case of American (especially in Dallas) the solution is simple. If you have potential connecting passengers that will be close to making their connecting flight than have an alternative to the absurd “closing the door 10 minutes before departure rule.”

    In virtually every misconnect I have at DFW (which are averaging around 30% at this point) I am at the gate in that 10-minute window (along with others) and though the plane is there and the jet bridge is connected they refuse to board anyone. It makes absolutely no sense to me and is just Parker and his team so obsessed with “systems” and “policy” that they miss common sense solutions to real problems at DFW…that is they are selling 30 minute connections that are often impossible if needing to switch terminals.

  8. I view holding a plane for connecting passengers as poor service, you are delaying hundreds of passengers for the benefit of a few.

    We have all likely missed connections, it’s part of flying. It is also why airlines often charge a premium for a direct flight (and why hidden city pricing exists).

    Either the airline will need to add in enough padding throughout the day for these delays (decreasing plane utility causing prices to rise), or every flight later in the day becomes late, causing even more people to mis-connect.

  9. DEN has a late departure bank and it makes very little sense to push flights without connecting passengers when virtually all passengers at that hour are terminating and missing a flight means a forced overnight for the affected pax. We aren’t talking about holding airplanes for hours, but if 10-15 minutes makes a difference, then I’m all for it. Moreover, software can easily be created (and exists) to assess the likelihood of passengers making their connections if flights are held for short intervals.

    A common-sense change that won’t make much of a difference to the average passenger, but in the few cases it needs to be deployed, it will be most appreciated.

  10. The software/algos will likely be weighing the “value” of the misconnecting customers ie..status, price of fare purchased and ranked. Kirby does nothing out of the kindness of his heart. They won’t delay for just any old late arrival. This will be easier said than done in any event if the gate agents are under threat by their local GM to have zero delays regardless of this kinder gentler policy du jour (transient policy initiatives such as this which agents see come and go) it’s doubtful implementation of this will be even or consistent.

  11. Fixing the computer programs to understand who’s connecting and how late they may be, yes that would be nice – but first UA needs to get the program to be able to wake up the ground staff at the destinations to manage the gates ahead of time, so that the arrival of an incoming UA plane is not a complete surprise with no gate available… and if the gates are all going to be full, then delay the departure and wait for the latecomers.

  12. @Fun in the Sun does not take into account that most of the departing passengers who may be slightly delayed are terminating at the destination, or have ample connecting time built into there itinerary. If UA really wanted to amp up the service to delayed connecting passengers they could be met at the door of the arriving delayed flight and buggied to their waiting connecting flight, thereby keeping the delay to an absolute minimum. I guess than unless your name is Kirby this is unlikely to happen.

  13. Sexy_Kitten,

    Living around PWM I can confirm that flight (EWR-PWM) has to be the worst leg for ANY airline (XXX-PWM) always is delayed no matter who is flying there.
    Real pain traveling to/from PWM

  14. Kirby, of all people , should not pontificate about Operations schedules as he was the architect of the debacle of 2016 at AA. Network schedulers often believe they are easily the smartest people in the room. This concept of holding an airplane for known connections isn’t anything new. It was used at Continental since the mid-90’s per my friends at that carrier. The technology showing connections has been in place for decades.
    United mainline operations improved through mid-2018 but is seemed they tightened schedules (aka Block times ) and the last 5 months were going backwards. They also have the greatest number of Regional carriers and the technology doesn’t seem to talk to the mainline Operations on a timely basis. I find the Regional product at UA is poor as it the lack of quality aircraft ( i.e 50 seaters). Natural share may improve but the UA product is poor.

  15. I’ve noticed an uptick in airlines making short connection schedules available. My choices are often 35-50 minutes or 3+ hours. Who TF wants to hang out [at any airport, really] for over 3 hours? But the angst that goes with a short connection…rock, meet hard place.

  16. I always thought it made a lot of sense for airlines to hold the last flight of the day for connecting passengers that were reasonably late particularly with the absurd margin for closing the plane door, i.e. 15 minutes before actual “departure” time. Improved automation is very noticeable at United despite the legacy CO system – I now get reasonably timely flight updates every time there is a change. So good to hear that they are further leveraging technology to hold flights where it makes sense.

    On a personal level my last flight to AMS was delayed a few minutes so that some late arriving passengers from MEX could board. These customers were transiting ORD with all the added hassles of clearing immigration and customs (something that is rarely necessary in other countries and a competitive disadvantage for US carriers) so I certainly respect the decision to hold the flight.

    I am not sure why Gary finds a need to keep harping on the dead dogs. All airlines have killed animals at one time or another through negligent handling. CO used to have one of the best (and only) pet programs with tracking in the industry but that was killed off (no pun intended) by the merger. The bogus service animals (including the pit bull that recently mauled a 5-year old) are a far bigger problem for passengers,

  17. @CoolHandLuke

    Even if they try to minimize the delay, it doesn’t change delaying hundreds of passengers for very few.

    This will lead some of those passengers to miss connections. Perhaps some are connecting with other airlines United has no visibility into. Perhaps some are running late for a cruise, or business meeting, or funeral, etc.

    I would prefer to avoid an airline that is regularly delaying flights for connecting passengers. I have seen Southwest do it for me, and still was not a fan of the policy.

    There’s just no way to know what each passenger is trying to get to, and some are probably far more important than those running late. Only a matter of time before the first “I missed my relative’s last dying breath because United held my flight for someone running late”.

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