I read the other day about how airlines are having trouble capturing and keeping business travelers. Airline travel represents even more of a buyer's market than in previous years, according to media reports. Being a Premier Executive flyer on United (a lofty title until you consider the titles "above" me, and I'm still not permitted to use that coveted 'red carpet'), I thought I would call United and discuss my upcoming business. I observe that while I am a Premier Executive, I almost never get upgraded in cross-country flights. There are simply higher classes of frequent flier who get in line ahead of me. Now, I think this is completely fair - the people who are flying 100,000 miles a year are entitled to 'dibs' on seats and service that respect the human condition. However, if this is a buyer's market, perhaps it is time to review the relationship. This review is also based on some new personal circumstances discussed below.
What do I get as a Premier Executive?
1) The regular economy seats in United provide a profoundly inhumane experience, but are required in order to create an additional class: Economy Plus. You cannot have Economy Plus without Economy. One must provide steerage class seating in order to prod you into an impulse buy, hoping to avoid lower limb thrombosis. As a Premier Executive, I can reserve Economy Plus seats for no cost and in advance. Check!
2) While I cannot use the Red Carpet entry (reserved for 1st, business class, Global Services, 1K members), I get to board ahead of Seating Area 1 (think on that for a second: every flight has reasonable people confused that the number one on their ticket does not mean they board first). Why does this matter? Because of the consistently "limited overhead storage" that leads to some unfortunates being forced to check their carry-on luggage - adding 20 minutes to their flight experience on the receiving end in some cases. I don't have that problem, because I can board first and get my bag into the overhead nearest my seat; a luxury when exiting the aircraft. Check!
So the benefit of being a Premier Executive amounts to this: I get to avoid the miserable flying experience of the people behind me both on line and on the plane. My experience is still mediocre, with no laptop power, no on-demand video, no internet access, uncomfortable armrests, etc. But at least I'm better off than those people back by the lavatories (given the ratio of lavatories to passengers, I call this the Buttock View Section).
Now, I have a new employment situation that will find me on an airplane virtually every week. Since airlines were eager to get business traveler dollars, and I have a lot of business coming up over the next few years, I thought I would engage my current vendor. I offered a modest proposal: Since I would be a higher class flier in a matter of months at my current rate of travel (1k), why not grant me the status now to ensure I continue to procure the services of United for these next few years? Yes, this is unfair to the existing 1K members, and therefore perhaps untenable, but I thought having an idea would help the United rep get creative in her attempt to keep my business. Even if advancing me to 1K early is not "aligned with United policy," what ideas would she offer to keep my business?
I will spare you the extended phone call, I'm certain you can recreate the experience for yourselves and be fairly accurate. Bottom line: the entire conversation was about their policy. The poor lass was left telling me how important I was to United, while offering absolutely no reason for me to continue buying her product offering. I mentioned the in-flight experience as compared to other airlines - on-demand video on JetBlue and Virgin America, Internet access on Virgin America - and her only response was to talk up the Internet access in the Red Carpet Club. (Two problems there: These clubs are all on the GROUND and membership would cost me over $300/year.)
My advice to the United Airlines Owners (employees) is this: We have come a long way since Henry Ford was able to offer any color of car, so long as it was black. If you continue to engage your customers by simply repeating your "policy," and ignoring customer-centric approaches to business, you will lose. You are about to lose me. Does that matter?
For my new job, I commute from DC to San Francisco. If I flew every week, that would be 251,576 miles per year. If every other week, the miles would be 125,788. Currently, I'm flying every week - a pace that will continue for at least the next six months. Yes, I will be a 1K member in a few months - but United's failure to consider loyalty strategies that are based on something other thanregarding my unfortunate fellow travelers is a potentially fatal flaw.
For all other airlines: Does anyone out there need a frequent flier? I have approximately 200k miles per year for the winning conversation. You may reach me in the comments section below.