United Airlines didn’t exactly “wow” people when it unveiled the interior of its first Boeing 787 last week. Whilst aviation enthusiasts continue to wax poetic about the common attributes of all 787s – super-sized dimmable windows and luggage bins; and a cornucopia of LED lighting settings – some flyers have expressed their disappointment at United, decrying everything from the carrier’s decision not to adopt the 787′s striking arching entryway to its choice of seats and upholstery.
I endeavoured to explain the reason why parts of the cabin – specifically the economy-class seats and the inflight entertainment systems – look somewhat passé, noting that these particular items were ordered years ago and have sat in storage waiting for the long-delayed aircraft to be delivered. I also pointed out that United has been pressing Boeing to cut into 787 production to install the latest-generation integrated IFE/seats for economy class, as well as airborne connectivity. Someone on the popular Flyer Talk forum said my post “at least explains why it looks a bit 2007, even if it doesn’t explain why it looks a bit 1992″.
The truth is that North American carriers are notoriously conservative with their branding – they favour a palate of blues and greys – as well as with their seating choices. Unlike their foreign partners, they generally don’t make sweeping statements in business- and first-class. United is no exception to the rule, even adopting the same “BusinessFirst” seat for the 787 as installed on merger partner Continental’s long-haul aircraft. As Ronn Cort, the new president of aircraft interiors firm Kydex, says: “When it comes to branding there is the North American strategy, and everybody else’s strategy, and you know the difference. The difference is that branding in Europe and Asia is about an experience and branding for North American airlines is about colour.”
Even so, and in spite of management’s behind-the-scenes efforts to improve IFE and bring connectivity to the 787, United missed an opportunity to improve the overall passenger experience aboard the newest addition to its fleet, suggests well-known airline, hotel and travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, who co-founded Atmosphere Research Group. (See a photo tour of the United 787 interior here.)
Says Harteveldt: “I recognize this aircraft is woefully late in being delivered and United is probably by now saying, ‘Just get me the bloody airplane’. But where were the Continental people when they were envisioning this [787 interior]? Did they talk to seat manufacturers? United itself and Continental both have goofed with not having direct aisle access for BusinessFirst. That is a critical thing for the business traveller. Could they not have gone to the seat manufacturers and said: ‘We need six across for the economics to work; how do we get a seat that will give us what the traveller wants which is direct aisle access?’”
Harteveldt notes that American Airlines “made a decision with the Boeing 777-300ER to revamp its business class and go with direct aisle access; and Delta has done it with direct aisle access in business class. The customer is going to look at this [United 787] and say, “Okay, this is what United has to offer; who else is flying?”
Absent any point of differentiation, says Harteveldt, travellers opt for the cheapest price. But when a carrier dramatically improves the passenger experience – and backs up its efforts with strong on-time performance and baggage handling – travellers will pay more.
Harteveldt notes that Atmosphere Research Group’s data show United’s leisure passengers earn “very respectable annual incomes” of about $92,500, and some 53% of United passengers will consider paying a reasonable premium for noticeably more comfort if they’re made aware of it.
“United wants to be seen as a premium airline. They want to earn premium yields. Well, they have to earn it, and that takes work,” adds Harteveldt.
Do you agree with Harteveldt’s assessment? Have your say in the comment section of this blog.