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First off, while I'm not the typical flying businessman, I am probably the typical flying personal consumer. A couple things I've noticed about the airline industry are (1) I'll go with whomever gives me the best price on Travelocity (I might be in the minority in this regard), and (2) having worked for Cisco during their downturn and seeing what's happening to some of my friends, businesses are no longer ignoring pricey expensed flights to various destinations - this, from what I understand, has allowed airlines to significantly drop prices in the past ten or so years for the masses.

Now, that being said, I think the primary problems in the airline industry are differentiation and the pricing model. UAL should completely rethink the way they do business, not just offer a few temporary incentives to get people flying again. I believe that these short-lived incentives do little to promote brand loyalty (free shipping from FlyByNight.com for your first twenty shipments ring a bell?) and once they're gone, the company remains in deeper debt than it was before.

So, here are a few ideas for improving the customer experience with UAL:

(1) Elminate the arbitrary 7- or 14-day window for low fares. Why does this exist? For accounting purposes, or to fleece the corporations that will pay the higher prices for their employees to fly on short notice? Obviously the don't-care businessman is rapidly disappearing; I believe this was the reason for these rules in the first place. No more games like this would be a nice start for customer loyalty.

(2) For last minute flights, why not partner with eBay to deliver low-cost flights to various destinations? You could have the UAL section on eBay, a site everyone loves, not invest any capital in developing a last minute travel website, and sell the flights for a fair value. Hell, you could even have a Buy It Now price and a reserve.

(3) Eliminate stupidly priced fares just based on the airport: expand your rules to include proximity to other airports or distance. In my case, for example, I live in NYC but home is Charlotte, NC - one of the most expensive airports in the country to fly into. I have a flight going home for Thanksgiving that stops in Charlotte then connects to Greensboro (an hour away by car) because it was $400 cheaper than going to Charlotte. Of course, I'm going to fly into Charlotte anyway, but this doesn't seem to matter to the airlines. Stupid. I'd pay fifty bucks more on every flight and possibly stick with the same airline to avoid this.

In short, UAL needs to differentiate itself enough, and develop online tools that will make customers want to shop with them instead of through Travelocity or Priceline, two sites that make flying anonymous.

Next we need to look at ways United spends its money. I don't know much about the financial situation of the company, but I'll speak from what I've been able to gather.

(1) Drop all other ventures immediately. Focus the attention of the CEO on running the airline - lateral integration shouldn't be attempted until a solid business is running. Perhaps a new executive position should be created or a consultant should be hired to deal with removing the parts of UAL not related to flying so the CEO's attention can be immediately focused on saving the core company.

(2) Improve employee relations by giving them more input in the way things should be done in the company. I don't know UAL's corporate structure, but from what I've seen typically disgruntled employees are too many levels removed from their superiors; vertically integrate levels of management (perhaps without more layoffs, just restructuring) so employees have a voice.

(3) Drop flights that have low volume or negotiate deals with other airlines to combine these flights; e.g., if Delta, Continental and United were running flights between St. Lous and Dallas at ~33% occupancy, have Continental offer this flight with bookings through Delta and United (and bulk discounts to seats purchased by Delta and United). This would allow United to stop running the flights it deemed least profitable while still offering a nearly full schedule; it would also boost occupancy for other airlines.

In any event, maybe it's not too late for UAL. With a new CEO they could hopefully be back in contention for one of the major flying powers of the US. Stranger things have happened...
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