Tuesday, June 11, 2013

UA 'Slimline' seat review: It doesn't look good.

My friend Stephan Seagraves recently flew in an UA Airbus 320 with the new Reparo 'slimline' seats supposedly possessing what United refers to as the "comfort package" and the results were not pretty:

New United Seats: Not an improvement. Stephan Seagraves, badice.com

My immediate reaction to the flight last night was a little bit of the knee-jerk, “I hate change!” type but after gathering my thoughts and reading through my notes, my summary is this – the seats are not a one for one swap with regards to passenger comfort when compared to the previous United A320 seats and the new seats are certainly not an improvement. United’s reasoning for these seats was clear from the get-go, they wanted to fit an extra row of seats on the plane and these seats allowed them to do that by moving the rows closer together.

I encourage you to go read the entire article, where Stephan does a great job breaking down what's wrong with the new UA seats in great detail.  What really struck me is that this is the "new" direction that United is taking and it seems to be more in line with adding six seats of revenue per flight while totally ignoring the customer experience. Also disturbing is the fact that the promised improvements with in-flight amenities haven't materialized, but the new, uncomfortable seats are already being put into place.

This is, to my way of thinking, a pretty big deal and it signals, on the part of United, a conscious decision to ignore the in-flight experience in lieu of a few more dollars per flight.  This is an outlook that I feel will damage the airline in the long-run, as more and more high-value Premiers decide that it's not worth the money to stew for a few hours in an uncomfortable seat while they can pay less on competitors such as Southwest and (gasp!) Spirit for a more comfortable domestic flight experience.

This is just another example of UA's push toward "operational excellence" which is not about ensuring customer satisfaction, but includes metrics such as revenue optimization, on time percentage etc.  Not that an airline shouldn't worry about being on-time. United has, since the merger, been fairly awful at meeting industry standards, even considering recent improvements.  They do seem more interested in putting lipstick on the pig than they are handling the bare-bones of any customer service industry, namely, providing good service to the customer.

I've previously stated that I believe UA (and other airlines) are eventually going to move to eliminate the low-to-mid tier elite statuses in favor of co-branded credit cards that offer up a host of amenities on par with what is already received.  They will do this to a.) free up First Class and Business upgrade space for their upper-tier elites and b.) to maximize the guaranteed income stream that those cards provide.  In doing so, however, I think it's a mistake to markedly downgrade the economy and economy+ flight experience for a newly volatile customer pool by making the seats unflyable on red-eyes and transcontinental flights.  It's a textbook case of stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.

A dime that might not be there, should their competitors figure out that theirs is a better economy product that can be used as a selling point for the customer who is suddenly untethered by loyalty.  With all of UA's improvements seemingly focused on the premium cabins, they're leaving themselves open to falling behind in steerage to the point that the fliers who used to exhibit some semblance of loyalty will find themselves with no compelling reason to continue doing so.

My long-standing position on United is that I'm sticking with them due to their routing advantages flying out of IAH.  As things continue to spiral downward for the average passenger, it's getting closer and closer to the point where I'm reconsidering that position.  In 2014, for example, my current plans are to not requalify at my current level, but to go one level lower and give the competition a try on a trip or two.  I fully plan by 2015 to be a straight value flier, substituting loyalty for a credit card.

Sports Section