Why United Wants To Wake Up With Denver
Super early morning hub flights are rare, but United is adding many from Denver. Also: What's new on United's catering improvements? And what's the biggest pain point for the airline's customers?
An airline can run all the punchy Super Bowl advertisements it wants or spend big on saucy digital ads to try to win local market share. But ultimately, big-city travelers may choose an airline because it flies nonstop at the time they want to fly.
United, which is feuding with Southwest over which can call itself Denver's hometown airline,now is moving beyond edgy advertising and altering its approach in Denver to fly more routes, more often, including very early in the morning. In a big ceremony this week, the airline highlighted its new schedule, as it doubles the number of very early morning departures from Denver, with flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego and Seattle.
You might say: so what? United claims it is the world's largest airline, so doubling the number of early morning flights at one hub is not a material change. But I’m intrigued because this is a strategy shift and it's slightly unusual for a large U.S. network carrier.
Typically, airlines operating a Western hub like Denver send aircraft to outstations at night and fly them back to the hub early in the morning, filled with connecting passengers headed elsewhere.Because airlines wait for connections, they typically don’t fly many early morning departures from these hubs. This Friday, I count five departures from Denver before 7 a.m. — to United’s other hubs in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Newark and Houston.
That schedule works for an airline trying to win business from Missoula or Boise, or even for a carrier with no local competition, as hub captives will wait for the 8 a.m. nonstop if the alternative is a connection on another airline. But in Denver, Southwest has no hub-style constraints. On some days, Southwest’s Denver schedule includes a 5:45 a.m. flight to Orlando and a 5:55 a.m. to Nashville. That may give Southwest a competitive advantage among local travelers.
It’ll be less of an advantage soon. Starting in June, I see a slew of new United pre-7 a.m. departures, including the promised ones to Dallas, Portland, Las Vegas, Seattle, Orlando, San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix. A similar slate of late night arrivals from these cities will complement the morning departures.
”It was a hole in the schedule,” Linda Jojo, United's chief customer officer told me. “This is targeted for, not surprisingly, our local market — folks in Denver that want to get out and back in the same day, or just get a good start on their business trip or vacation."
United isn't doing a full copy of the Southwest network — Southwest gets to keep early morning St. Louis travelers to itself — but it is bulking up to some of Southwest's favorite cities, Cirium data shows. Of the five most traveled O&D markets from Denver, Southwest is the local market leader in three — Phoenix, Dallas and Las Vegas. Think it’s a coincidence United added flights to all three?
Given United's recent advertising campaign poking at Southwest, I doubt it. But in this interview, Jojo was too polite to take a swing at the competition.
"We're playing our own game," she said. "Denver is an important mid-continent hub that we've been planning on growing. And if that happens to compete with other airlines at the same time, I guess that's what we call a win-win."
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What about the food?
Jojo and I have a running gag about United's food. She tells me it's improving and I, as a frequent customer, say it needs work. She's kind enough to put up with me.
She is not even in charge of food, as that is chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella's purview. But she's the voice of the customer, and she said she understands food has been a common complaint, despite what she said is the airline's investment in it.
"We have been working on that since the last time you and I spoke," she said, referring to our November chat at the Skift Aviation Forum. One problem, she said, is United's worldwide scope, which makes it challenging to translate what’s designed in the test kitchen into what shows up on board. In September, a United executive told me United sometimes has problems with caterers making unauthorized menu substitutions.
"It's way harder to do that than put really cool new features in the mobile app," said Jojo, who also leads the airline’s digital division. "But all that work that we have been doing is starting to pay off. We're getting better results from our kitchens. They're doing a better job of letting us know when they can't get a certain product and we're interacting with them in terms of what they can swap out and what they should not swap out."
She said she's starting to see people compliment United's food on social media, a development she called "the green shoots of progress."
Keep the menu simple. People like burgers.
One of my biggest complaints about airline food — not just on United — is when carriers try to mimic a fancy restaurant. Not everything needs to be gourmet, especially when it is reheated in an aircraft oven.
Jojo said her data, which is based on what passengers order and not what they say they want, tells a similar story. The airline is committed to vegan and vegetarian options for passengers who prefer it, she said, but nothing compares to the No. 1 most requested item — the hamburger.
"As we find things that people pick, like the burger, we keep that on the plane," she said. "When we find things that folks don't like so much, we get that off quickly."
Ideally, United will add more options like the burger — simple, consistent and tasty.
"What you're seeing us do is try things, to see what not only looks great and tastes great in our test kitchen, but that also can be delivered through many kitchens," Jojo said. "We are learning from that. The simpler things like the pasta or the burger tend to be the things that folks like and also tend to be a little bit easier to reproduce over and over again."
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What's the biggest complaint?
Food might be my biggest issue, but that’s not what jams up Jojo's inbox. Instead, she said she hears more about lost luggage than anything else. And it's usually not United's fault — at least not technically.
The problem, she said, is IATA rules that govern which airline is at fault when a bag is mishandled on a mixed-airline itinerary. The customer is supposed to make the claim with the last airline that flew them, but the IATA bureaucracy is not something most people understand.
"I want to figure out how to help those customers," she said. “But it's not the way the larger ecosystem has been set up. The processes just aren't great. And my email would prove that out."
United is working to better connect with joint venture airlines, like Lufthansa and ANA, so it can at least help customers on those airlines find their bags, she said.
I’d love to see a way IATA can make this more seamless for passengers. Think it can happen?
United has a tiny edge according to the most recent Cirium data, but both airlines control roughly a third of the local market.
At some Midwest and East Coast airports, redeye flights also can feed the first morning bank, but Denver doesn’t see many of those, other than Hawaii arrivals.
If United wants to blame poor meals on certain caterers for failing to deliver on their specs, they ought to be able to name one station where they're proud of the food they're serving inflight... Meanwhile, going from caterers to partners when it comes to baggage. Always someone else's fault?