Better trips to London, D.C., West Coast — and more ways to use miles — are just some upgrades United announced for business travelers

By Tom Bergeron
Chicago | Oct 28, 2019 at 5:15 am
Editor’s Desk

United Airlines is in the process of adding a sixth flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport (in March 2020); more flights to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (there will be 13 daily in a shuttle-type service); and more business-class seat opportunities on flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles (also next summer).

And that’s just the start of what the company is doing in an effort to grow the reputation it wants: To be the best airline for business travelers in the country.

These news updates were just some of the many insights from United — one of the largest employers in New Jersey — during a two-day press meeting last Thursday and Friday in Chicago.

(Full disclosure: United flew me — and more than 100 journalists from around the world — to Chicago for the occasion.)

United officials said the airline — which has come under scrutiny and criticism in years past — felt it had plenty of worthwhile updates to share with the media.

There was the company’s goal to be known as a sustainable company (and updates on its effort to create zero-carbon travel, seriously), a technology company (it is now able to hold certain planes to allow more passengers to make their connections) and a more consumer-friendly company (talk of leading apps was nice; a promise to end all gate-checked luggage was better; more later).

There also was one big Newark airport processing update: A biometric check-in procedure (for the first security stop) will be announced in the coming weeks.

Of course, the biggest news for ROI-NJ’s readers are updates to business travel.

Let’s start with Heathrow. The sixth flight to London — which United officials called the biggest transatlantic market — will mean United will have nightly flights at 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 (as well as a morning flight).

More so, customers traveling to London with the top-level Polaris ticket and staying at select Marriott properties will now be able to have their luggage sent to their hotel after dropping their bag at a special desk in Heathrow’s arrivals area (and will get a text message when it arrives).

Luc Bonder, United’s vice president of loyalty and head of the Mileage Plus program, said it has taken loyalty to another level.

File photo
The entrance to United Airlines’ Polaris Business Class Lounge in Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport.

“We want to use Mileage Plus not just as a platform to recognize and reward customers for their loyalty, but also as a way to make it easier, more convenient, more seamless to fly United,” he said.

“We think this is awesome and that it’s going to be a real game-changer for business travelers hitting that route.”

Bonder said the new program will be launched in five Marriott properties in London initially, but will expand rapidly to many more locations in London and elsewhere overseas.

Bonder said he also anticipated that the service eventually will be available in the U.S. — and eventually for non-Polaris customers, though they may incur a fee.

United officials said serving the business customer is a top concern.

Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said the airline’s seven domestic hubs (Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Houston and Washington-Dulles) are the business centers of the country.

“We’re driving all products and services that you are hearing about today to be the leading airline for business travel in the United States,” he said. “How does United achieve its full potential? It’s working around that network and it’s designing products and services that are unique to take advantage of that network.”

For Nocella, that means more than just business travel.

“Business customers don’t just fly for business,” he said. “They often are flying and taking their families on holiday. So, when you’re talking about business customers, you’re not just talking about improving their experience in the first-class cabin. In fact, when you look at how our business customers fly, the majority of the time, they are not sitting in the first-class cabin, so the emphasis and the initiatives we put out have to be across all cabins.”

Nocella noted the company’s efforts to increase overhead bins — suggesting a 1-to-1 bin-customer ratio was coming now and will be in all planes by 2023 (although the airline didn’t address how it would prevent fliers from putting more than just their luggage overhead). He also noted a push to get free DirecTV on board all aircraft.

In addition, he said, the airline is creating/expanding two classes of service that not only will get business travelers more purchasing options, but more opportunities to be upgraded.

United offers Economy Plus, with extra leg room, as a way to help frequent fliers.

“It means you get upgraded into those seats often,” he said.

“We could clearly put more seats on a 737 if we wanted to, but that’s not our strategy. Our strategy is to make sure we have enough seats in all our classes to satisfy demand. We see this as a great competitive advantage, and it links back to our business customers that didn’t get the upgrade (to first class) that day but they got upgraded to Economy Plus.”

United introduced its Premium Plus class (step below first class) on wide-bodied jets across the globe for the same reason. Then, Nocella said, the airline discovered it was a highly coveted seat.

File photo
Newark Liberty International Airport will see more United Airlines flights next summer.

“Most of the passengers who are using it today are actually requesting the seat,” he said. “They didn’t come looking for Polaris and were downgraded to Premium Plus. They came looking for Premium Plus. This was a segment of the business we were just completely missing.

“This is an important feature to our overall goal. There are plenty of folks out there who wanted this mid-tier experience that we weren’t able to satisfy in the past — and now we can.”

United, Nocella said, will have more business class and first-class seats coming, especially on its flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it will add 100 more of these seats on a daily basis next summer.

“When we looked at our first-class capacity, it wasn’t sufficient for what we could sell, and it also wasn’t sufficient for the upgrades that we like to provide our fliers,” he said. “So, going forward and throughout 2020, we’ll be reconfiguring our aircraft to get more seats in the first-class cabins.”

Bigger is better — at least out of Newark. That was the word from United President Scott Kirby when discussing how Newark fit into the company’s plans.

“Newark is a crown jewel for us, a great gateway across the Atlantic, but it’s challenged in the sense that the airport can only handle about 79 operations per hour because of the runway and the airspace around there.

“In that limitation, the only way we can grow Newark is by flying bigger airplanes. That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

That means more feeder planes that were headed to Newark for connections are more likely headed to Dulles. And the increase in bigger planes will lead to more flights — with bigger planes — to places such as Florida, Phoenix and the West Coast.

“You will see that evolution through the middle of the next decade,” he said. “Where we’re going to grow Newark is by increasing the size of airplanes that are flying out of there.”