I am not an expert on airlines or an employee of an airline. I am just a marketing guy who has some ideas on what the future of the airline business can be.
Here's what I think United Airlines should do. United is positioned to appeal to what is left of the baby boomer business and leisure travel market.
Airlines can no longer be all things for all people and hope to compete on price. There was a time when airlines could go head to head on the same routes with the same schedules and compete on crowds and price. United and American both flew from Chicago to New York every hour all day long. Business travelers took choice for granted. These days that kind of competition is just adding up to excess capacity - too much "sameness." There just aren't enough customers to go around.
What's needed is a narrowing of focus. United needs to concentrate on a specific category of travelers and strive for excellence within that segment of the market. I would suggest baby boomer business and leisure travelers. I would combine these two groups because passengers who travel on business will use their frequent flyer miles for leisure travel. Like hotels, United can use their weekday business traveler capacity to offer leisure travelers good deals on weekend travel.
Humanize the Planes - More legroom, wider seats, bigger bathrooms. The whole plane becomes Business class. Maintain First Class for those who want the status and/or pampering. Realize and accommodate the reality of the real dimensions of the average to large American 45 year-old. Three seats become two.
Provide Communications Technology - Provide broadband Internet access, cellular service and 110v AC power to all seats.
Appropriate Entertainment - Program entertainment systems to appeal to boomers. Don't provide kids programming or video games so as to discourage younger travelers that can be distracting and disruptive to the target market.
Sensible Food and Beverages - Provide decent beverage service and optional meal service. Charge extra for meals if you need to but make it worth the extra cost. $10 for the current airline meal. Oh please!
Invest in Ground Facilities - As you restructure invest in ticket counters/systems and baggage screening/checking/claim areas and systems to make them as streamlined and efficient as possible. Both business and leisure travelers value time and hassle savings. Minutes saved at the airport mean more time on the ground. It's a valuable (profitable) exchange.
Reality Check Frequent Flyer Program - Revise the system to be more realistic. Don't provide miles for sneezing. Give out fewer miles thereby making it easier to use the miles that are earned. Start a two tiered system for miles granting programs like credit cards and hotels. Let them award upgrade points that travelers can use to upgrade to the posh First Class. It should cost a lot of points to do so.
Continue to use Internet - As this segment is already wired in the office and at home, rely more and more on web based ticketing, reservations and customer service.
Staff Accordingly - If your market is baby boomers, staff planes and public contact positions with baby boomers. Strive to build trust and rapport with customers. Common values among people of the same generation will make United a comfortable place to be.
Sure, steps like these are going to disconnect many of the existing customers from the United brand. Conversely, United could gain huge numbers of customers in this target segment that are fed up with airlines that don't cater to their specific needs. People who are uncomfortable in cramped seats, irritated by screaming kids or chattering teens and 20-somethings and in dire need to check their e-mail in flight are probably willing to pay a reasonable premium for a ticket on United.
Is it hard to make these changes in such a large organization? Yes, but they have no choice but to change. It's only a matter of what they change into.
It's gonna be a great future.