At EDGE, United Exec Talks Customer Service Turnaround

At this year’s Travel Leaders Network EDGE Conference in Las Vegas, United Airlines' Mark Muren, managing director of global accounts, shared more on the airline’s plan to turn its customer service around after a series of ugly incidents over the past year. That event drew 2,100 attendees to Las Vegas June 12 – 16.

“It’s been a very tough year from a PR perspective,” Muren admitted, although he did note that this past year has also seen the airline’s best-ever on time performance, as well as increased profits and onboard product investments. At the same time, the airline has faced controversy for a series of incidents that included a bloodied passenger being dragged from an overbooked flight to make way for United staff and a puppy who died after a flight attendant reportedly directed it be placed in an overhead bin.

To address the incidents, United is attempting to move its company culture toward one focused on caring. Previously, the airline had emphasized consistency of service, Muren said.

“It used to be, when someone shows up on a United flight you should know what you’re getting,” Muren said. “We wanted to change our culture to something really meaningful.”

The aim is to move away from staff training that emphasizes rules and processes. “The truth is, if a staff member makes a decision like that, it’s because management scared them into it,” Muren said.

The airline’s new customer service philosophy is centered around “core 4” principles: safety, caring, dependability and efficiency. Safety is top priority, because “one safety incident is worse than one PR incident,” Muren said. At the same time, caring comes before priorities like dependability and efficiency.

“When you’re on a values-driven mission, you don’t let PR, you don’t let social media distract you from that,” Muren said. “We’re going to stay the course.”

New Product on the Horizon

The airline’s customer service revamp is also coming online along with a number of new product updates. This year the airline is growing its domestic coverage by 10 percent, with 407 new flights debuting this summer. Of particular focus is the airline’s mid-continental hubs of Denver, Houston and Chicago.

In terms of international routes, 13 new markets are coming online, including Tahiti and Reykjavik, Iceland, as United continues to expand its Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet.

United is also rolling out new options for passengers looking to take advantage of its new Polaris business class product, which has been rolling out slowly. “We didn’t really have all of the elements of the experience in place,” Muren said.

Now, however, United plans to add a new Polaris-equipped aircraft every seven days through 2020. The airline has also opened its first Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare, which it had to double in size due to high demand, as well as other lounges at San Francisco and Newark Liberty. Through the rest of the year, three more lounges are slated to open: in Houston this summer, in Los Angeles in the fall and in Washington, DC, this winter.

Finally, the airline is adding a new Premium Plus premium economy product to its international long-haul routes. The new service will include a premium amenity kit with perks like headphones, a blanket and a pillow, as well as a meal service that Muren said is comparable to the airline’s domestic first-class product.

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