Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I've just been reading a pulsating piece of research.

It seems that those who live near lottery winners in Canada are more likely try and keep up with the richer Joneses.

They spend too much on fancy things and suffer more bankruptcies than those spared having the absurdly fortunate as their neighbors.

This instantly led me to thinking -- not for the first time -- about United Airlines president Scott Kirby.

He spoke this week to the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in New York.

There, he expressed a certain satisfaction with United's product. 

This may not be the same level of satisfaction currently experienced by some of the airline's customers.

Indeed, this week, a new J.D. Power survey revealed that United Airlines' customer satisfaction score was the lowest of the big airlines and lower than even Allegiant Air.

Kirby, though, wanted to explain a few things. He's bullish, you see.

As reported by View From The Wing's Gary Leff, United's president said: "A lot of what we're doing with the product is keeping up with the Joneses."

Some might detect a slight lack of imagination in this statement, a resistance to being different. 

They might even detect a tinge of "sigh, if they have that, I suppose we should too, but really..."

It's almost as if the tireless pursuit of money is being interrupted by the tiresome need to have something that customers of other airlines are suddenly getting and, perish the idea, even liking.

Especially as Kirby said he thinks his airline's new Polaris Business Class product -- which is a touch behind schedule in being implemented -- is the very best.

Perhaps, though, I missed something. So I asked United to clarify Kirby's thoughts. I will update, should I hear.

I fear, though, the essence of my interpretation marries rather well with other aspects of Kirby's strategic thinking.

Like many of those who run large airlines, he appears to believe that his network is much more his product than anything he can put into his planes or any element of customer service.

This isn't an original thought. 

I spoke to a senior executive of another large airline recently who candidly admitted that his customers gravitated to his airline precisely because it was easier to make connections than because the flight itself would approximate enjoyment.

For Kirby, this also seems to fit with his idea that he'd rather raise fares than lower them. 

"Demand is inelastic," he mused. It is? Oh, that's why airlines like to nickel-and-dime passengers so much?

Airfares, he said, have room to go up, not down.

If United suddenly began to offer lower fares, why, it would start losing money. And we can't have that.

Fare sales? They seem déclassé to United's president. Which would be truly admirable if his product was admirably differentiated. 

Which it isn't.

But then look at the ad United directed to me on Twitter this weekend.

Perhaps fancy sales are different.

Kirby's slides for his presentation show that the airline's sales focus is on "domestic high-yield share."

Basic Economy, the Sub-Cattle Class that's there for you to loathe it, is placed in the category of Segmentation Improvements.

But at the top of his Commercial Initiatives expected to create tailwinds slide? "Gemini Revenue Management System forecast rollout." 

Kirby did manage to slip in a slide about improving the customer experience. 

Elements here included testing a new boarding process, telling customers the real reasons for flight delays and ensuring fewer bags are lost.

And, well, "informative messaging for connecting customers."

No, it isn't much, is it? Bigger planes? More comfortable seats? More legroom? Oh, don't be silly.

I fear customers will suspect they know where Kirby's heart is, and it isn't in the human side of customer appreciation.

It's refreshing, charming even, that he's so open about how he views his business. 

But in a situation in which his airline is often viewed -- rightly or wrongly -- as one of the prime drivers of customer indifference or even distaste, perhaps a touch more focus on thinking, well, different wouldn't come amiss.

Or perhaps it's just not worth it.

Perhaps, when four airlines own more than 80 percent of all U.S. seats, it's enough to keep up with Jones, Jones and Jones.

Published on: Jun 3, 2018
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