Why United Airlines is Failing and Will Continue To

In Brand Differentiation, Purpose, Mission & Values

The new United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz has started positively in his new role by issuing an apology.

He said the airline has not lived up to promises it made to its customers and employees when United Airlines and Continental Airlines agreed to merge five years ago, the Chicago Tribune reports.

In a letter to employees, shareholders, and travelers, Munoz admitted that the airline “can do better.” The fact that improvements can be made will come as little surprise to the 138 million passengers who flew with the airline in 2014, yet voted it the second worst airline for customer service.

There are more ways to fail as a business than just financial. Financially the company is in pretty good shape, but is this because travelers often have little or no choice as to what airline they fly, or is it because United was sought out specifically as the carrier of choice? The customer satisfaction ratings would seem to indicate it is not the latter.

When asked what changes he would make now that he has taken the helm, Munoz was vague. He mentioned better coffee on board, decreased bereavement fares, and improved on-time rates, according to Time Magazine. He also mentioned that he plans to fire consultants, which will be of little interest to travelers.

While Munoz’s opening shot may sniff of positivity, I worry that it will end there. United hasn’t lost its way because of its coffee nor even its on-time rates. United has and will continue to flounder from a customer perspective because it has lost its “why.” It has confused “what” it does and “how” it does it with “why” it does it. Every airline competes for passengers on the “what” – transportation – and the “how” – air travel, yet only a few (Southwest and Delta) have understood why they do it.

Take the most loved airline in the US – Southwest. Their “why,” or their purpose, is clear: Southwest exists to connect people to what’s important in their lives by offering friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel. Every word in Southwest’s purpose is important as it is the filter through which every decision is measured and made. It is this “why” that prompted loyal customers in September 2011 to write checks and send them to Love Field in Dallas with letters begging Southwest not to go out of business because they were too loved and would be missed too much. It is their “why” that has prevented them from charging for two pieces of checked baggage – as of today, they’re the only US airline not charging. This decision not only allows them to keep their rule of friendly air travel – fees mean more carry-on luggage which would make it longer for passengers to board – but they have also calculated the enormous financial value of the decision in terms of the loyalty it garners from passengers.

Southwest has won our hearts and in turn won our wallets. Walk down the jetway to a Southwest aircraft and you’ll see a poster on the wall with a picture of the underbelly of the plane and a caption that reads, “Without the heart, it’s just a machine.”

Southwest is everything United is not. In the battle for the skies, United has chosen the path of commodity – chase the dollar and provide more “whats” to more “whos.” As passengers, we don’t buy that way when we have a choice, and if the only differentiator is a route or a price, then you’re only one competitor away from losing out. All of the major airlines have tried to roll out a low-cost airline to compete with Southwest through the years, and all have failed. Why? Because they didn’t know their “why.” Their deep pockets didn’t make up for their lack of love.

A friend recently stranded in an airport due to the grounding of a United flight, tired of the lack of updates from gate attendants, leaned over the counter toward a United employee and asked why customer service is so bad at United. Without even looking up from her computer she replied, “Because they treat us like sh*%, honey.”

Until United understands why they do what they do, they will be relegated to making short-term, reactionary decisions about coffee and union-dealings to get through the day and hoping one of these things will be the magic pill that wins our hearts.

Mr. Munoz, for your airline to win our hearts it has to have a heart. Fire all the consultants you want, but it’s not getting you closer to helping us understand why you deserve a share of our wallets or a share of our hearts.

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Barry-028 2Barry Chandler is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company focused on helping companies discover their purpose to allow them to achieve their vision, build preference and drive margin. Barry has been building award-winning businesses since launching his first company in Ireland in 2003. His last company, a digital marketing agency, was acquired in 2012 by a California-based publicly traded entertainment company which then hired him as Chief Marketing Officer. It is his belief that the greatest brands seek to change the world, improving the lives of their associates, partners and customers.