Lately, United Airlines has been experiencing something unusual for the Chicago-based company: good publicity.
Just this week, United ranked higher than any other U.S. airline on the annual list of the world's top 20 carriers compiled by AirlineRatings.com.
Based on an assessment measuring safety, passenger reviews, and tech innovation, Qatar Airways was named the world's best, while last year's winner, Air New Zealand, came in second.
Only one U.S. carrier cracked the top 10, and that would be United in eighth place.
United? The company didn't even make the 20-entry list last year. (Other U.S. airlines on the 2021 roundup: Hawaiian at no. 16, Alaska at 17, and Delta at 19).
In its announcement, AirlineRatings praised United for its "huge commitments to supersonic, subsonic, and electric aircraft," referring to the airline's recent high-profile orders of futuristic Boom jets that promise to halve travel times while running on sustainable fuel; eco-friendly, zero-emission electric planes from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace; and more traditional but still brand-new Boeing and Airbus jets designed to "rejuvenate" the fleet, as AirlineRatings puts it.
Perhaps even more remarkable, United gets high marks for striving to give passengers "the very best in comfort."
Listen, we're just as surprised as you are.
This is, after all, the same airline that left a passenger bloodied in 2017 after dragging him from an overbooked flight, as captured in a notorious viral video.
As recently as last year, reports surfaced that United was trying to weasel out of giving customers refunds they were legally entitled to for flights canceled during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That helped the company rack up more complaints filed by customers with the federal government than any other airline in 2020—a whopping 11,274, almost double the total of the second-place complaint generator, American Airlines.
But somewhere around early summer 2020, and coinciding with the promotion of current CEO Scott Kirby, United made a palpable move away from the dark side.
For one thing, the company permanently dropped fees for making ticket changes for most customers (except those who buy Basic Economy fares).
For another, United dedicated itself to improving the onboard experience—and not just in business class. The company's working to bring seatback screens with on-demand entertainment to every seat (reversing a previous trend toward making passengers use their own smartphones) and installing more power outlets and USB ports in airplane cabins. Even United's overhead compartments will soon be bigger.
These may sound like minor improvements, but little things add up when you're squished onto a flight where tensions are already running high over tight schedules, misbehaving fellow passengers, epidemiological concerns, and other indignities.
In announcing United's various changes over the past year, Kirby has suggested he wants to turn the airline into something customers prefer rather than settle for.
Sounds like a promising business model to us—and it's not unprecedented in American aviation. Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, and other carriers have managed to develop loyal followings by trying not to make passengers completely miserable from check-in to landing (though Lord knows those carriers aren't perfect).
Maybe United figured, We've tried giving passengers bloody noses—how about giving them a decent experience?
Will the strategy pay off?
The carrier's most recent earnings report, released this week, indicates business is strong, but that likely has more to do with the industrywide rebound in travel rather than changes to the customer experience.
Here's hoping the reforms United adopted during the lean times aren't forsaken as the company jets into the future.