United CEO Oscar Munoz: Seats are Too Small and Wifi is Too Slow

United’s CEO Munoz says they’ve reached the limit on how much they can shrink seats personally I already avoid flying United coach, and would choose JetBlue or Southwest domestically and many foreign airlines internationally.

The issue with seats is a function of:

  • width (9-abreast Boeing 787s and 10-abreast 777s are tight)
  • pitch (you can’t work effectively on even a small laptop when there’s just 30 inches from seat back to seat back)
  • reduced padding in slim line seats that cause my back to ache on flights over a couple of hours.

“I think we are nearing a point certainly that we can’t do that anymore,” he told ABC News’ Senior Transportation Correspondent David Kerley.

Munoz acknowledged having to stay competitive with peers and match many of their moves, but he admitted passengers may have had enough.

Munoz also acknowledges that United’s wifi is a problem but suggests they just can’t find the right technology which is weird because in everything else they don’t seem to have an issue copying competitors (and the wifi is generally fine on Delta and domestically on American).

“It’s complicated technology,” he said. “We will fix that, and, frankly, we would stop a lot of our growth if we could just stop and find the right provider and get that done. That’s how important Wi-Fi is to us and to our customers.”

He acknowledges the problem but offers no plan to fix it, because it’s somehow out of his control. I avoid flying United because I simply cannot count on the time on their planes being productive, whereas the prevalence of satellite internet on Delta and American means that on board time is far more likely to be valuable time.

The excuse-making — blaming the technology for being unable to offer better wifi — doesn’t end there. Passengers are frustrated but, he says, the stress of air travel really isn’t their fault — it’s really what happens before customers board: “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security… by the time you sit on one of our aircraft” so United can’t even do much about it “”improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on ‘what coffee or cookie I give you.’

United had promoted its Illy coffee and stroopwafels and major passenger experience improvements, but of course he’s right it isn’t about the coffee or cookies it’s about the seats, service and reliability but he blows past those entirely.

This is typical of Munoz, whose example of a terrible flight is a 30 minute departure delay, waiting for a gate on arrival, and feeling like it’s taking a long time at baggage claim. Oh, and naturally it wasn’t even United’s fault, it was a contract regional carrier he was flying when this happened. And even then it had a happy ending because of great employees!

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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Comments

  1. Stop this B.S. Oscar Munoz. There are many concrete steps you can take to improve the customer experience. Step one is to fire Scott Kirby.

  2. Munoz seems to be nothing more than a figurehead since he started. The real @sshat running the United train wreck is Kirby and his band of bean-counters. Munoz will never stand up against Kirby’s puppeteering of him, which is a shame.

  3. Oh, c’mon! It’s April 23rd – NOT April 1st!!! Hehehehe

    Yeah, yeah, Oscar tell us something new that we didn’t long ago already know:

    Yep, your economy seats are:

    – too damn small
    – too damn narrow
    – too damn hard

    And instead of tricking out of your planes with that awesome 100 channels of live, satellite DirecTV on all of your aircraft to at least better distract us from those horrible, teensy weensy, kneecap crushing, butt numbing, no legroom seats you approved the installation of, and the successive cranking of the vice that reduced legroom in all classes except perhaps the cushy Polaris suites you &
    Scott Kirby are always assured of enjoying for the rest of your lifetimes, you instead decided to stop equipping 737s that arrived in recent years with anything but the same blank seat backs to look at that those antique aircraft dating back to the dawn of the Jet age has when they took to the skies in 1967!

    Yeah, it’s nice to see you acknowledge the seats on your planes suck and are too damn small/hard/ unpleasant, etc.

    But now that you agree they suck and are horrendous for flyers, is this just talk to assuage your guilty conscience as you cast your eyes like Mr. Burns in “The Simpson’s” to the ever larger pile of money yet to come as your airline’s business plan is built on a foundation of ever increasingly intentional miseries that are carefully calibrated to better pad your own nest?

    Or are you actually going to do something that makes things better that might actually give flyers a reason to want to choose United the way a great many of us now make a bee-line to Delta (with its wannabe mini-clone JetBlue as its backup when Delta has nothing available)?

    Just wondering!

    Actions speak louder than words, Oscar – in case you’ve forgotten 😉

  4. Despite your “headline,” Munoz did NOT say his seats are too small. Instead, he made the Captain Obvious statement that they were “nearing a point” where they couldn’t make them smaller. Big difference, of course. And pretty much everyone in the industry would say the same. The Big Three certainly aren’t going to be making seats any smaller than they are now. Munoz didn’t specifically say anything about legroom, but that also is unlikely to change much either.

    In other words, Munoz is trying to be empathetic, but not proposing any changes. In other words, doing what he should do to maximize UA’s profitability.

  5. I actually just Googled my own answer and it’s literally only 1 airline, Japan Airlines…

    Anyways, I flew 90+ segments on United last year and they are fine. People’s comments sound like they think they are fighting the Civil Rights movement…it’s just an airplane. It’s just a seat.

  6. Where possible, I book away from United. No free checked bag in basic economy, unlike all of their competitors except for Spirit. Grouchy employees, cramped cabins, WiFi that doesn’t work, and an operation that is second to … last.

    Really fortunate to live in Seattle where Alaska provides a nonstop option to essentially everywhere.

  7. On the other hand…

    Doesn’t #OurPalDougieSarcasm say that everything’s fine and that this is what customers want?

  8. Japan Airlines does!

    That’s who.

    I certainly won’t fly any 9-abreast 787s that’s for sure.

    Ditto 10-abreast 777s

    If it’s economy class those flights are strictly aboard Delta, Korean Airlines or any others whose 777s are 9-abreast.

    Otherwise, must be Airbus A330s or A340s with their 2-4-2 cabins.

    It’s one thing to be press the flesh of your seat mate in a 17” wide seat on a Boeing 737 or Bombardier CRJ series for 2-3 hours – but quite another to do that for 5-15 hours as most 777 and 787 flights are.

    Don’t get me wrong – the 787 is an amazing plane if one is in PE or biz class.

    But if not, HORRIBLE – especially for any super long haul red eye flights.

    For sure that ain’t living the dream!

    And 777s in 9-abreast economy or any version in PE or biz class are perfectly fine.

    But those 10-abreast, densified Boeing beasts are every bit as horrible and best avoided for one’s next 5-15 hours jaunt hither and yon as those 9-abreast 787s are!

    I’ve flown them both over the past 14 months for 11-16 hours flights, and while I was NOT in the child sized economy seats, I sure did spend time walking up and down those pathetically narrow aisles attempting to avoid the obstacle course of dangling limbs, torsos and even heads from the passengers stuffed into those waaaayyyyy too small seats on both sides of the aisles and it sure wasn’t pleasant being unable to avoid kicking or bumping into someone no matter how hard I tried – even with the little flashlight I learned to bring aboard after my first 11 hours 787 red eye to better light the way.

    Oh. Heck. No.

    And I’ve already endured 17”-17.2” wide seats on shorter hops to know how horrible and patently unsuited they are for flights longer than 3-hours.

    No thanks!

  9. @TProphet : thanks for letting us know you’re the cheapskate that doesn’t have status, book BE to save $25, then whine about it online.

  10. No sh*t Sherlock! CEOs should be forced to ride the 9 /10 across birds, with the seat in front reclined. They should offer blood thinners on the beverage cart for all the passengers at risk for DVT / PE because of these small inhumane seats.

  11. Chopsticks said: ‘he made the Captain Obvious statement that they were “nearing a point” where they couldn’t make them smaller.’ Adding on: That actually means that the next shrinkage is nearer to the point. Same with the next shrinkage. This does not have to stop until the seat is too small for the fluid volume of the typical person. I think they will continue to find was to restrict space for now. This is almost like in math where as x approaches infinity, 1/x never actually reaches 0, but it comes really really really close.

  12. @ TProphet — I’m glad you like flying Alaska but, to be completely honest, they are about a 5% better airline to fly than UA these days. I’d give them that 5% because, on average, their employees are a little nicer and they currently have a higher percentage of “space bins” on their aircraft than other carriers. Personally, 5% doesn’t move the needle for me — other factors, like schedule, price elite status — would be way more important almost every time. I remain amused when people tell me they love one airline and hate another when, in reality, the experience between the two carriers tends to be remarkably similar.

  13. Last month, I flew United’s longest flight, IAH-SYD, in economy. It’s 17.5 hours, and I thought it was a very good flight. I did not feel cramped in my seat in the 9-across 787, and the seat was relatively comfortable. I got a lot of sleep on the flight and got to SYD relatively refreshed. I forget what they served me, but it was perfectly edible — I remember being pleasantly surprised. I liked this flight better than the AKL-LAX flight back from the region that I took the following week on AA.

    I’ll contrast that with flying IAH-HNL roundtrip in the old 777 layout. That seat may have been wider because it was only 9 across, but I found it very uncomfortable for trying to sleep, as the egg shape pushed my head forward, and I didn’t sleep at all on the redeye flight back.

  14. The situation with miserably uncomfortable economy class seats/cabins isn’t made better by some cheap drinks and snacks; it’s just that fixing the discomfort level in economy class isn’t the order of the day because it’s not as cheap as the cheap drinks and snacks.

  15. I work in hotels. Imagine if when you had an issue the operations manager, director or GM responded with, “it was probably the taxi you took over that messed up your stay”. Exceptional levels of shirking responsibility.

  16. It strikes me as strange that CEOs view matching what competitors do as competing. In a sense, I guess, matching is competing, but matching is certainly not competing to win! In sports, athletes and teams don’t want to be as good as or as bad as the competition, they strive to be better than the competition. That’s real competition in my book

  17. Thanks Everyone for all the great comments and wonderful suggestions.

    I learned a lot from my mentor Duggie and together we are determined to make every one’s experience miserable and lasting.

    Oscie mentioned coffee and cookies so I’ll announce today that beginning May 1st we’ll start serving Dollar Store Brand instant coffee (made right at your seat) and Gerber Banana Cookies through out the entire aircraft. (Those pesky bean counters held a hammer over my head).

  18. One more thing: Based on your feedback, you will see changes ahead and I think you will like them.

  19. Reduced aircraft seat pitch is a big concern to all passengers, but especially to pregnant women, elderly people and passengers with reduced mobility

  20. Reduced aircraft seat legroom, increases passenger’s stress, muscle pain, and many other undesired situations

  21. Why blaming the seats ?
    Small seats…passengers should look into the mirror, eat less, walk more, lose weight, then they will fit in those seats and planes will burn less fuel. Plus, people will be healthier overall.

  22. Too small seats…passengers should look at themselves in the mirror,, eat less, exercise more, lose weight, then they will fit into those seats and planes will even burn less fuel. Plus, people will be healthier overall.

  23. Why in the world would you even want WiFi on an airplane? It’s the last sanctuary where nobody can reach you and bother you do your work at work and read a book on an airplane. People survived for millennia without internet. Enjoy the solitude!

  24. Howard Miller – You’re the man! Excellent essay on the 17″ wide seat. Can manage for a couple of hours – otherwise forget-it! Stay away from the 10-abreast 777s.

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