Two quick stories about United Airlines. One's good, the other isn't--and they illustrate something important. We'll summarize them fast and then explain why we're telling them.

Neither story has much to do with the normal day-to-day running of an airline. They're not about routes, or aircraft types, or fuel costs, or squeezing more people into economy class. Yet, they're two of the most viral, most read, best-known stories about United Airlines this year.

Why? Because they're not about what you get for your money when you buy a ticket on United Airlines. Instead, they're about how United Airlines makes people feel. And "how you make me feel" is often far more important to customers than anything else.

Finally, maybe, it seems like the leadership at United Airlines might be starting to understand this. Here's why we think that, and why it matters.

'Changing how people feel'

This comes up after an interview that Brian Sumers of Skift did with the president of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, who's known as "the most 'by the numbers' executive in the airline industry today." 

He's known as that by the noted airline chronicler Gary Leff of View From the Wing, by the way, who also calls Kirby "a destroyer of airlines." 

Even Sumers calls him "the basic economy guy," an airline executive who pushed for new, bare bones tickets to compete on price with discount airlines like Southest, Spirit, JetBlue, and Frontier.

During the interview Sumers asks Kirby about how the 2017 incident when a passenger, David Dao, was dragged off a plane affected United's brand, and what his priorities are for 2019.

And Kirby's reply, for the first time, suggests something different might be coming:

[Next year] and beyond really is going to be about changing our DNA and changing how people feel when they fly United. You know, not just the hard metrics of, "Did you get me there on time and what are the financial numbers?" But changing how people feel. The epiphany for me after Dr. Dao was [realizing] how different the world is today and how perception and opinion matter so much and how much more quickly something can go viral.

Margins vs. Maya Angelou

As I've written before, Americans' perceptions of the four biggest airlines really come down to a quote by the poet Maya Angelou:

People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

It's not about specifically whether your seat pitch is 30 inches or 31 inches, or whether the bathroom is ridiculously tiny. Those things matter, but largely in the aggregate.

They matter only as part of a bigger package that includes whether your employees act as if they care about customers and truly want to be at work, and whether passengers feel like they're being nickel-and-dimed. 

They matter as part of whether your people feel empowered to bend rules to serve customers--regardless of whether they provide a short-term bump to your quarterly earnings or not.

Think about the Southwest Airlines captain who flew five 180 degree turns in the middle of a solar eclipse so a passenger could get a better photo. Tell me what the obvious short-term revenue-driven advantage was to that? (Spoiler: There wasn't any. It just made people feel good.)

Can you imagine another airline doing that? And it's no surprise that Kirby winds up comparing his own airline to Southwest (one of the discounters, by the way, but an airline that constantly tops the charts on customer preference):

In the long term you can look at airlines like Southwest who've had a history of good customer experience and perception and they drive superior results.

We have a strong belief that even though we can't put it in a spreadsheet and say how people feel about this one thing is going to show up in the next earnings report, we have a core belief that it does matter in the long term and that it's tables stakes now to change the perception.

There's no one single thing. There's no easily quantifiable metric, and no specific way you can attribute it within your profit margin. 

But it's there, and it's important. Perhaps the most important thing. And we've heard it now from United Airlines. The key question is: Do they really believe it?