United CEO aims to win back high-paying business travelers

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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz speaks Thursday in New York, while demonstrating the carrier’s new Polaris service seats, a business class product that will become available on trans-Atlantic flights. | Richard Drew/Associated Press

NEW YORK — United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz knows that his airline has alienated some of its most loyal fliers.

His effort to win them back starts with a new business class product that he personally unveiled Thursday at his first major public appearance since becoming CEO.

“It is about the entire experience,” Munoz told The Associated Press. “It’s not just a new seat. It’s not just new meals. It’s not just better wines.”

Business travelers, who may pay $5,000 for a trans-Atlantic flight, want seats that are comfortable to work, eat and sleep in. They want direct access to the aisle, particularly on overnight flights where nobody wants to have to crawl over a sleeping passenger to use the bathroom. So, United is giving its business class seats their first upgrade in a decade — and removing middle seats from those planes still have them in the premium cabin.

Passengers will also get do not disturb signs and more storage space. There will be dedicated lounges in key airports just for business class fliers. It’s all part of a new service called Polaris.

Munoz says the product represents “the new spirt of United” and is part of “winning back the trust of our customers.”

United Airlines’ new Polaris service seating configuration, to become available on trans-Atlantic flights, is displayed in New York on Thursday. | Richard Drew/Associated Press

United Airlines’ new Polaris service seating configuration, to become available on trans-Atlantic flights, is displayed in New York on Thursday. | Richard Drew/Associated Press

He acknowledges more work needs to be done.

“Airline travel has become like going to the dentist,” he told the crowd gathered in a Manhattan event space for the unveiling. The goal is to improve it from “lounge to landing.”

Seth Kaplan, managing partner of industry newsletter Airline Weekly, says the new seats will let United match business-class offerings from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

“United has been a financial laggard for a long time,” Kaplan says. “United hopes that reinvesting in the product will help bring it up to speed.”

But Munoz knows that updating the physical product isn’t enough. That’s why flight attendants are getting a new level of training for international flights, which he says will filter down to the domestic trips some also take.

Traditionally, in the airline industry, some of the more-senior flight attendants — the ones who often get international flights — aren’t as enthusiastic or friendly as passengers hope.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” Munoz says, acknowledging that United has a history of testy relations with its unions.

United involved flight attendants early on in the design of Polaris, a move Munoz hopes will encourage them to gladly take on the additional work such as offering three sets of wine instead of just one.

“You give them a product they can be proud of and a little momentum and a labor contract that they are happy with … and I think that’s what carries the day for us,” Munoz says.

United has yet to reach a joint contract with the flight attendants following the 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. The flight attendants union said Thursday that a new contract would improve both employee morale and the customer experience.

“Products and services are meaningless without the people who introduce them to customers,” the union said in a statement.

The new meals and service standards will start Dec. 1, but it will take several years for the airline to replace all of its business class seats.

Munoz was named CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc. last fall but took medical leave in October after suffering a heart attack just six weeks into the job. In January he had a heart transplant and returned to work full-time in March.

Since then, Munoz has been flying around the country visiting employees and key clients. Under doctor’s orders, he’s only flown on private planes following the transplant, avoiding all commercial jets, including those of his own airline.

Munoz says he tours enough planes on the ground and sees employees in action and that the flight restriction will be lifted in a few weeks.

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