The Business Case for United’s In-Seat TVs
"We didn't simply buy the IFE system … to just play back a standard movie." Plus, more strategy nuggets from United's leadership.
As it shifts to premium positioning, United Airlines is adding screens to all aircraft, some with 4K resolution. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process that should help it better compete with Delta Air Lines for the top of the U.S market. Now, United wants to monetize the screens, possibly in a way no U.S. airline has ever done.
"We can do a lot of interesting things that help us pay back the very expensive system we installed," chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella told me last week in an interview at the IATA Annual General Meeting in Istanbul.
United isn't divulging secrets now — Nocella promised more details in 2024 — but he did confirm a rumor I had heard: United hired a senior executive to bring media magic to United's aircraft. It's Richard Nunn, who joined the airline earlier this year as CEO of MileagePlus, despite having no experience with loyalty programs. What Nunn does have is big media experience, coming to the airline after five years at Comcast, where he worked on a technology platform that monetized advertising across Comcast's ad-supported businesses, according to his LinkedIn profile.
He'll do something similar at United, Nocella said, both with screens and the overall MileagePlus program.
"It's more than media," Nocella said. "Richard just takes us to a new level in being able to use all the information we have to better serve our customers, but also do a bunch of very interesting media plays that he had done in the past."
I have heard carriers talk about personalizing content for years, with limited results. Some carriers like to say they have Netflix-style systems, but that's rarely true. It's a major feat if an airline lets you start a movie on one flight and resume it at the same point on the next one. About the closest any airline has come to real personalization is JetBlue, which greets travelers by name on the screens, a reasonable gimmick only if passengers don't switch seats at the last minute. Nocella suggested United's platform will go beyond anything on the market today.
"It's not a screen that is just designed to play back movies," he said. "It's designed to interact with our customers in a way that they find value. We can serve up information on that screen dynamically if we know who is sitting in that seat."
I joked that United might try to sell perfume, similar to Ryanair's inflight scheme. I suspect it will try to sell something, but in this interview Nocella preferred to focus on more customer-centric improvements. The screen might, for example, help destress the travel experience by serving up information about flight delays and rebooking.
"We want that system to be able to interact with the customers in a way that airlines have not done in the past," he said.
Paying subscribers can read on for information I learned from Nocella and network head Patrick Quayle about several commercial initiatives, including United’s continuous pricing strategy, its plans for international routes, including at London Heathrow, and its approach toward expanding its co-brand credit card portfolio. And yes, there’s a little about United’s food, too.
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