Yesterday I arrived in London from Washington DC on United Airlines flight 918. In May 2010 United announced that it was going to buy Continental and at the time the NY Times commented:
"Combining Continental and United would also create a global behemoth. Continental would bring its strong presence in Latin America and Europe, while United has strong positions in Asia, including China and Japan."
Nevertheless in August last year the deal won approval and was completed in October 2010.
I've flown a few times on United since then and been looking for any signs of the acquisition from a passenger standpoint. The first obvious thing is the logo change, and the adverts that assure us that that things are going well. What other things have I noticed?
Well there's now a feature for having your boarding pass delivered to your cell phone which happened earlier this year, but it's difficult to tell if that's part of the acquisition process or was in the works before that. I was amused when I went to drop off a bag on Saturday, having shown the agent my cell phone pass, that he printed me off one saying that 'United doesn't realize that there's no cell phone reception when you get down to the security lines. People get sent back up for a printed pass.' But with my mobile pass and my paper pass all was well.
I was slightly nervous when the same check in agent told me that my bag was too heavy to be put on the belt but if I left it in front of his desk someone would come and collect it. (No mention from him of unattended bags).
OK so I got to gate D7 for my 18.04 departure and we all boarded. Some hold up because of 'weather' but after only a 15 minute delay we set off down the runway. Getting about 100 yards we stopped and hung around. Finally the pilot said there was a mechanical problem and he'd made the decision not to take the plane out.
To cut a long story short we ultimately de-planed were told to go to a different terminal (from D to C), and the flight finally took off 4 hours later than scheduled.
However, I was fairly impressed by United's
a) finding another plane ready to go with the same passenger load
b) dealing with re-seating the passengers
c) getting the meals from one aircraft to another (I assume that's what happened), at any rate I got my specially ordered meal
d) getting the bags to the new aircraft
e) the civil tone of the various agents I was watching as they dealt with very irate passengers, several of whom missed connecting flights.
But I noticed that they did seem to be getting information on how they would get connections, and on arrival several service agents met the flight to give information – in fact it was rather tempting to say that I was going on to Casablanca or Istanbul just to see what happened next – but I didn't and went instead to see if my baggage had arrived – I wasn't fully expecting it.
However, there it was along with a tumble of others. (I noticed that although in most airports there are baggage handlers who organize the bags coming down the shute, in London the bags just avalanche with a baggage handler watching while talking into his cell phone.)
While still in the baggage hall I received an email from United that read:
On behalf of all of us here at United, I want to express my sincere apologies for the experience you had on Flight 918 on June 11, 2011.
At United, we take pride in being a reliable part of your travel plans. Your satisfaction and business mean a great deal to me, I would like to invite you to visit the following website to select a token of our appreciation.
Please have your flight information handy when you visit the site.
Family members who traveled together using the same email address should access
the site individually.
Thank you for your time. Your satisfaction is important to us and we look forward
to serving you better in the near future.
So I clicked on the link and found three possibilities of 'appreciation' – 9000 bonus miles, an $200 voucher or a 10% flight reduction, together with another letter.
Bearing in mind what must have been going on behind the scenes to resolve this situation as best as possible it seems to me that things are on the right track for success, maybe lessons described in 'From Worst to First' Gordon Bethune's story of Continental in the 1990s are being integrated effectively and Continental's experience will take United beyond the behemoth into excellent service.
For more on how United and Continental are 'working together to streamline your travel' look at their regular updates pages, here.