The United and Continental Merger: The Real Reason Bigger and Badder isn’t Necessarily Better

I’ve been watching the announcement of the United-Continental merger with interest and a bit of confusion.

Interest because living near San Francisco, United is the airline we often fly, and as a result, that’s where most of my frequent flier miles are. Any change to United impacts me directly.

Confusion because as someone who flies United fairly frequently, I just don’t get it. What is the obsession with being the biggest airline in the world? What kind of prize comes with this title?

It’s certainly not Most Profitable. In a business that deeply feels the force of economic swings, fuel price changes and even terrorism fears, being biggest crowns you with the title of Most Exposed. The bigger the airline, the more money it seems to lose (but perhaps they will make it up on volume–silly me to not consider that).

Furthermore, it’s not as if United has an outstanding record for customer service and support that they can then propagate throughout Continental. (I very rarely fly Continental, but I’ve been told they’re somewhat better at this. Still, the new airline will be called United and most likely absorb more of the United corporate culture, for better or worse.)

A merger like this one will likely lead to even more labor discord throughout the ranks, which translates into even unhappier flight attendants. This is not rocket science, folks. Unhappy employees translate into unhappy customers. No surprise there. And no fun for those of us who are trapped in a flying tin can with these people for hours at a time.

United’s target market is business fliers. Nothing wrong with that, in theory, except that they haven’t done a good job fulfilling their brand promise. Ask frequent business fliers how satisfied they are with United. The ones I’ve spoken with are quick to point out that both First Class and Business Class service on United have been scaled back. They don’t feel appreciated or taken care of by the airline, and even those in the top elite levels are not feeling the love they expect for their loyalty.

Here’s one of the key problems. United lost track of their target market. Or, more specifically, they focused on where the market *used* to be, as opposed to where it is now. And we as passengers are feeling the pain as a result.

Business travel over the last 10 years has changed dramatically, and it will continue to do so. Security and terrorism threats have made it much more difficult to fly. Economic conditions have made it harder to justify business travel. And advances in technology have made it less necessary to do so. The situation is not likely to improve anytime soon. Unfortunately, United didn’t get the memo on this.

Interestingly, the best airlines to fly today are those that are smaller and more focused–airlines like Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin. They understand their audience, their market and their brand and they’re focused on delivering a great value proposition. Don’t look now, United, but the folks at Southwest are even having fun!

Then there’s Singapore Air, which is probably the best airline to fly in the world. They are really in a class by themselves. In a country where chewing gum is a major offense that is severely punished, there’s a different approach to customer service and support from the national airline–something unlikely to find it’s way to the US, but still we can dream…Since they’re part of the Star Alliance, United customers are exposed to Singapore: The comparison does not do the world’s largest airline much good.

Today, Delta no longer says, “We love to fly and it shows,” maybe because it wasn’t showing. United no longer says “Fly the friendly skies,” perhaps because the skies aren’t really that friendly. What *is* the message these behemoths want us to hear?

It looks like the United/Continental hookup will come to pass. We know they’ll be bigger and badder. Let’s hope someone out there in Unitedland will focus on what it means to be even a little bit better as a result.

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