It is a mixture of sandalwood and orange peel. The scent, patented by United Airlines, will soon waft into the nostrils of United passengers entering airport lounges, putting airline-provided hot towels on their faces in premium cabins and, ahem, using aircraft lavatories.
But, cautioned United managing director of marketing and productdevelopment Mark Krolick, the scent will not be pumped into aircraft air filtration systems. “We don’t want anyone immersed in the scent for too long,” he said, explaining that, alas, not everyone will like the aroma. “We hope it provides good memories of United,” Krolick said. The smell, he noted, is “gender neutral and has a calming effect.”
Krolick was speaking to a room full of international journalists visiting United’s headquarters in Chicago on the eve of the Star Alliance chief executive board meeting, which took place in the Windy City in early December. The scribes were ushered into a room, inundated with the “United scent,” where Krolick outlined the “end-to-end branding experience” United is preparing to roll out starting in 2016. There will be mood lighting in United’s blue hues placed in the lobbies of airport lounges and at airport gates. Passengers stepping onto United aircraft will start hearing a new tune specifically created for the boarding experience.
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, long United’s theme song, was found in customer testing to be a bit heavy for boarding an aircraft, unnecessarily pumping passengers up just when they were preparing to sit still for several hours. Rhapsody will remain in United’s TV commercials, but the new, milder boarding music “portrays United as a progressive brand with youth and energy,” Krolick said, explaining, “We don’t want the personality of United to be an 80-year-old man or woman.”
Do passengers really care about all this? “Research tells us that nobody’s ever going to ask for this, but when you do it well, it’s noticed … and creates repeat purchases,” Krolick contended.
The lengths to which United is going to remake itself speak to something that has been obvious to airline passengers for some time, but until recently was not admitted by the airline: Its customer-service reputation was in tatters. Delayed flights, system outages, aging aircraft and brusque employees had all inadvertently became part of United’s brand in the years since the 2010 merger with Continental Airlines.
“It’s been a tougher integration than our original expectation,” United vice chairman and chief revenue officer Jim Compton conceded. “We began to prioritize getting that integration done and were not investing in the product.”
But an improved operational and financial performance in 2015, plus a tentative agreement on a labor contract with its pilots, has given United confidence that the merger headaches are in the past and a “new” United can move forward. “We feel like we’re at the point where we can really accelerate the pace” of product investment, Compton said.
United’s honesty about its customer service appears to be driven by Oscar Munoz, who became president and CEO in September when Jeff Smisek, who had guided the United-Continental merger and its aftermath, suddenly was forced to step down. But Munoz was only at the helm for seven weeks before suffering a heart attack and going on medical leave; he is expected to return sometime in the 2016 first quarter.
Munoz—an outsider to the airline business from the freight rail industry—“brought a fresh set of eyes,” according to Compton and other executives. Munoz quickly let it be known that United needed a “stronger emphasis than you saw in the last few years” on customer service and employee relations, Compton said.
“Oscar is a very important ingredient to this company’s overall success,” Brett Hart, United’s general counsel who was thrust into the role of acting CEO in October, told ATW. Though Munoz will be United’s driving force when he returns, Hart emphasized that the company was not “standing still” in his absence. United is making “significant investments” in IT systems and taking “a very methodical approach to look at our systems” to ensure disruptions that grounded flights in the past are not repeated, he said.
Indeed, no matter how good United’s aircraft lounges smell and how pleasing the music is as passengers board aircraft, on-time performance will be critical to any turnaround in United’s poor customer-service reputation.
Hart said United had “three of the best operational performance months in the history of the company” September-November, and in early December the airline boldly proclaimed it will best American Airlines and Delta Air Lines in both flight completion and on-time arrival performance in 2016. United told corporations with which it has air travel contracts it will pay service credit if it fails to meet the pledge, which includes all international and domestic flights. “We think there’s a slim-to-none chance we’re going to pay,” Compton said.
Hart added, “The important part is getting [passengers] from point A to point B. If we get them there on time, that takes a lot of pressure off … You ought to view [the 2016 operational performance pledge] as a reflection of our confidence in our operations. It’s not perfect, but we are operating on a much higher level.”