Wednesday, November 19, 2008

United on premium customers - not sure what will happen to demand in 2009 but am sure that premium customers do not make decisions based on price

United I posted on Monday some thoughts about the premium air fare product and the downturn/crash/eco tsunami. On Center Stage at PhoCusWright is Tim Simonds the MD of Customer Strategy and metrics for United Airlines talking about the increased focus that United will be making on the premium customer. Simonds highlighted that in the US Air market the premium passenger sector represented 30% of revenue in 2007 but lept to 50% in 2007. He was open and honest that he did not know if the numbers would hold up in 2009 but premium will still be a core focus as "a very attractive part of the market".

It will hold up in his view because United is rolling out new product. He displayed this product to us - which looked like an Emirates, Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific advertisement from 2004 - so is only a revolution if you are looking solely and US based carriers. When asked on this point Simonds admitted that the product will not be as "good as foreign flag carriers. The first step is to be number one in the N.American market".

In response to this a mini revolution broke out on the Center Stage floor. Questions were asked about what this meant for United's commitment to non-Premium customers. Charlie Leocha of Tripso put it simply "Doesn't this mean that United abandoning the back of the plane?".

Simonds answer "we try to give a high level of service consistent with the level of value that each customer has paid. But agree the bar needs to be raised for everyone." To another version of the question he answered "we need to enhance economy plus but quite simply there is a large and increasing differentiation between economy and business."

In a follow up Simonds said that he thought this strategy was appropriate because (and this is the main point) " United do not see the premium customer as making decisions based on price." I am trilled to hear a US airline rep talk about lifting the level of service and experience but I do not agree that premium customers will not be making price based decisions. I have been a top tier Qantas flyer for now 8 years. Yet this year I flew more long haul economy that any time since 1999. Price is now a greater factor in my decisions that any time in my non-lawyer career. It will be a factor in 2009 for a large majority of premium flyers. US airlines need to register this and improve the "behind the curtain" products.

what do you think?

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