United board coup

Two large hedge funds that own around 7% of United Airlines stock are leading a revolt to force United to replace their board of directors. United and Continental merged several years ago and they want Continental's former CEO, Gordon Bethune, named non-executive Chairman of the Board. Bethune is regarded as a the savior of Continental a decade ago and they want him back, I think, to undo the damage that United's CEO Jeff Smisek did in the years after the merger.

These Pumas were made for walkin... (my final United PS flight two years ago)

My husband and I were longtime United frequent fliers but several things turned us away:

  • The merger between United and Continental was an IT nightmare. While they might have some industry-leading IT capabilities now, their website was plagued with bugs for years and it looked and worked like a clunky 1997 website for 4+ years after the merger. 
  • Smisek talked a lot about upgrading the planes but they were so slow at rolling out Wi-Fi that we often flew Delta when not on the United P.S. JFK/LAX/SFO route (their lone route with Wi-Fi for years). JetBlue was also slow rolling out their Wi-Fi but when they did, it was with new, satellite technology that's dramatically faster than the terrestrial Go-Go solution. Oh, and it's free. And they had DirecTV on all their planes in the interim. 
  • Smisek clearly believed that they could get away with generally charging double the competing fares for paid Business Class, even though their offering was worse (same seats, no lounge access, no onboard Wi-Fi). Maybe he thought their large existing base of business customers, United elite status chasers, and lots of marketing could somehow justify it? One way or the other it seems like typical hatchet-job CEO tactics of exploiting long term loyalty for short-term gain.
  • With the economy booming again and several competitors eliminated, Delta decided that their excellent operational execution and vast route network meant they could offer fewer and stingier elite benefits to their loyal customers. United felt justified to copy-paste Delta's loyalty plan changes without copy-pasting the on-time performance, reasonable First Class fares, higher employee morale, and better route network that justified Delta's decisions.
  • They completely misjudged JetBlue entering the very lucrative premium transcontinental market with their Mint product. Business Class fares on that run dropped by $1000 when that happened and have stayed there for 18 months. We likely would have never "defected" to JetBlue from United if it weren't for the incessant nickel-and-diming they felt they could get away with. (No, really, it costs more to upgrade a paid Economy ticket to Business Class on United P.S. than it did to just buy a Mint ticket outright). 
  • It's clear that very little was done to integrate the crews of the two airlines after the merger. Yes, there were union issues, but it was pretty telling that flight attendants were still wearing "ex-CON" lapel pins years after the merger to show their displeasure at United taking over their beloved Continental. 
  • Sidenote: I love how JetBlue absolutely hit the correct note with their Saxon + Parole menu in Mint. People flying in Business Class on the JFK/LAX/SFO aren't likely to get excited about the standard "Beef, Chicken, or Pasta" offering, yet the big 3 legacy carriers keep serving midwestern cafeteria food on fine china to people who have much more sophisticated palettes. This would have been such an easy front for United to differentiate themselves on. 
  • Honestly, I had some high hopes for Oscar Muñoz. Once the PATH train bribery scandal got rid of Jeff Smisek, I'd really hoped they'd pick someone who could inspire the employees and could actually innovate rather than just being "crappy Delta with a better frequent flier program". But I cannot imagine what he must be going through with a heart transplant last December and an investor revolt happening on the eve of his return to work. If I were him, I'd take the golden parachute. I wish him well. 


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