United Says Sorry With Lower Fares

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Alls Fare in Love and War -- Are Uniteds Price Cuts Winning Back Passengers?

LINK By David Morgan

N E W Y O R K, Sept. 15  Like a rejected suitor, United Airlines, shunned by many travelers because of a summer marked by numerous flight delays and cancellations, is back, with flowers, chocolates, and sweet odes to its forlorn customers.

Forgive us. Come back. We miss you.

Striving to rebuild its standing with air passengers, United has mailed out apologies, offered frequent flier mileage bonuses, and has now substantially reduced its fares this fall in order to win back business.

United apologized in newspaper ads and with a television commercial in which United Chairman James Goodwin says the airline has failed in its commitment to customers.

This summer, thousands of people had their travel plans disrupted while flying United Airlines. If you were one of them, I want to apologize personally on behalf of United, Goodwin says from the cabin of a parked United jet in the commercial.

And in an effort to lure more users to its Web site, United is also offering additional discounts to those booking their tickets online at www.united.com.

Airline expert Joe Brancatelli, who writes a column for BizTravel.com, said the move reflects Uniteds desperation at the extent of this years problems. In August, with a 12 percent traffic decline, September and October and the whole fall must look disastrous to the airline, he said.

So they had to do something drastic.

No Real Advantage Gained?

Drastic means fares on many of Uniteds domestic round-trip flights have been sliced in half; long-distance U.S. and international flights have also seen substantial cuts.

Sample round-trip fares include BostonDenver for $288, ChicagoNew York for $198, Los AngelesNew York for $598, Washington, D.C.Orlando $198, New YorkLondon for $228, DenverMunich for $448 and ChicagoFrankfurt for $508.

Uniteds discounts are available on tickets purchased through Sept. 22 for travel through Dec. 14, and require a seven-day advance purchase; there are no blackout dates and no fuel surcharge applies.

The reaction has been tremendous, said United spokesperson Kurt Ebenhoch, who says the sale has been very successful so far. And while approximately 80 percent of Uniteds ticketing is through travel agents, an increasing amount of sales has been through Uniteds web site, whose traffic has grown about 130 percent a year.

We realize that to restore the confidence of our customers and win them back, it will not be in a day or a week or a single sale. But its a very good start and an important step.

Some travel agents said Uniteds discounted fares are the lowest theyve seen in several years, and they expect the sale to bring back many disgruntled United passengers.

This is a great way to bring people back, said Robert Polk, owner of Denvers Polk World Travel. The fares are very good, with very few restrictions, and there are no blackouts on travel over Thanksgiving. This is the first time I can remember that.

But Brancatelli said the airline gains no real advantage by launching a general fare sale since other carriers quickly lowered their own fares to match Uniteds.

Having just levied a $20 price surcharge to pay for higher fuel costs, American Airlines, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, TWA and US Airways matched Uniteds lower fares in some fashion, although there may be more restrictions. And the fuel surcharges? Many carriers are waiving them.

The Most Discounted

Despite the attractive price, Uniteds desire to get back in good graces with the flying public may still be a hard sell. Reports from some travel agents suggest that this dive in air fares has not yet resulted in a flood of customers for the airline, or a shift in allegiances.

Mike ONeal of Executive Travel Service has not seen any greater interest than in other fare wars, in part because there has been no promotion. We have been doing a lot of roll downs  exchanging higher fare tickets for lower fares with refunds  without the customers even knowing about the sale, he said.

Nancy Strong, owner of Strong Travel in Dallas, Tex., has seen some interest (It makes the phone ring) but since the fares dont apply to Mexico many of her clients have been disappointed.

She also doesnt see where United has attracted stand-offish or disgruntled passengers. It doesnt matter because other carriers are matching the fare, and if you are into a loyalty program that is where you go, Strong said.

Linda Schreiber of Starship Travel in Arlington Heights, Ill., is surprised at the lack of enthusiasm she has seen among the public. I have not seen the rush that I had expected. I have taken the time to call various clients and say theres a price war. Its very surprising, especially at this time of year.

Schreiber also has not seen evidence that the reduced fares have won back any customers to United: No, not at all. As far as our disgruntled customers go, everybody is disgruntled with the airlines, period. I dont think anybody cares anymore.

In fact, she has worked closely with charter carriers. As a traveler, Id rather be uncomfortable for four hours than miserable with somebody who doesnt care, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 17, 2000


An apology and fare discounts aren't sufficient to regenerate the loyalty that has been lost. I would be more willing to give United another chance if Chairman Goodwin said:
1. Here is why United was experiencing delays...
2. Here is what United has done to correct the problem...
3. If you experience a delay due to a reoccurence of the above problem(s), United will refund the purchase price of your discounted fare.

-- (Not flying@United.com), September 17, 2000.

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