How United intends to win you back

October 9, 2015, 9:31 PM UTC
Chicago's O'Hare Airport Hosts Air Industry's World Route Forum
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: A United Airlines jet taxis at O'Hare International Airport on September 19, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. In 2013, 67 million passengers passed through O'Hare, another 20 million passed through Chicago's Midway Airport, and the two airports combined moved more than 1.4 million tons of air cargo. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson — Getty Images

Since United Airlines’ CEO Jeff Smisek resigned under a cloud last month, the new CEO has been working overtime trying to improve relationships with employees and customers. Oscar Munoz has canvassed staff; he’s pledged to “do better” in a video and full page ads, and launched a website to solicit customer feedback.

On Friday, United Airlines’ vice chairman Jim Compton came to the N.Y. Society of American Business Editors and Writers and made the company’s case to reporters. “We need to do better,” he said. “Our aspiration is to be your carrier of choice.”

He said that airline management hasn’t “met employees’ or customers’ expectations,” and that since the merger with Continental five years ago, the airline “hasn’t done a good job” of listening and getting customers’ and employees’ input.

Specifically, he said the airline is working on:

New schedules: Last year, United ranked as one of the worst airlines for on time performance. Compton said the airline was adjusting their scheduling so that there would be more “out and back” flights; that would mean fewer flights would be cancelled or delayed due to bad weather.

Updating craft: Answering a question about planes that look like they’re from the 1980s, complete with ashtrays, Compton said the airline has updated some of its fleets, so that they have bigger overhead bins, leather seats and enable Wi-Fi. “Everyday you’re seeing less of those 80s planes”, he said.

Union contracts: Both flight attendants and airline maintenance technicians have been working without a union contract since the merger. Negotiating contracts with both unions is a top priority, Compton said. Munoz will be meeting with union leaders later this month.

One thing that likely won’t change, though, are the ever-shrinking size of economy-class seats — nor the ancillary fees charged for baggage check-in or roomier seats. According to one analysis, United Airlines collected $5.8 billion in such fees last year, more than any other U.S. carrier.

Compton noted that the airline offers “economy plus” seats — which are bigger than standard economy seats. Frequent flyers can be upgraded for free; otherwise, customers pay an additional fee. “We offer more economy plus seats than any of our competitors,” Compton said. “The concept is we are giving people the choice” to pay extra if they want the bigger seat.