Why I Still Love United Airlines.

United I know the world hates United Airlines this week, with good reason. But they need some friends and I am one. I have always loved United Airlines and I had good reason to. The reason I love United Airlines is that they funded my graduate education and indirectly helped me land my first business job. How so? Here’s an interesting story. I graduated from Rutgers with a BA in Business Administration in 1974 (Yeah that makes me old as dirt I know). 1974 was a recession year and the jobs available for college grads were largely assistant buyer training positions at Bambergers department store. Not my cup of tea. But it was also an era where getting an MBA was a golden ticket to a higher level job and more moolah. Moolah was good I thought, so I decided to go right into B school.

One little problem. While moolah is what I sought, moolah is what I lacked. I went through 4 years at Rutgers on money provided from the VA from my dad’s passing in the 60s. The VA provided $2000 full up annually for 4 years and Rutgers with tuition, room and board cost $2000/year. Obviously this made the selection of where I was attending college pretty simple. But B school was different. No more VA $. So I applied to various schools and thought I would figure it out.

I got a full scholarship from Seton Hall, not a bad program, and obviously the price was right. Yet I felt the cachet of an MBA from the Hall wasn’t what I wanted. I also got into NYU MBA program. Oooh, that’s better, I thought. Better and alas expensive. $100+/credit expensive for tuition alone. $6000 for 2 years—again just tuition. Seems so cheap in today’s world, but it was a boatload back then.

I asked the university if there were scholarship opportunities and they asked me to come in and meet. When I met with the financial aid folk they asked me what I thought was a strange question, “Are you interested in transportation” they asked. “Why do you ask”, I replied? They said there was a United Airlines Scholarship for a student who is very interested in transportation. No dummie me, I replied “I LOVE transportation”. And obviously I loved United Airlines which provided a scholarship covering the majority of my tuition.

thesisLater in 1976 when I needed to submit a Masters Thesis, I went to United and asked if there was “an analysis project” they needed help on and they gave me a mega project analyzing their Great Lakes-Florida routes, the results of which I still have–shown here (Major assist to my mother for a mega typing job). I guess I did a good job because they offered me a position in finance at their Illinois HQ. Not too shabby, but moving to Illinois and starting my career in finance wasn’t the path I sought.

I thought that I wanted to work in advertising and work in NYC, and was offered a position as a junior AE on the Amtrak account at the late Needham Harper & Steers, since I was a “transportation expert” (meaning I could use the term load factor in a sentence). United came through for me again. I always appreciated the money and launching pad that United Airlines provided me. To this day United could drag me off a plane, club me, and I would still smile.

However 99.99% of air travelers don’t have such a warm spot for an airline out of control, in an industry which communicates so poorly and treats its customers so shabbily. The glamour of what was once an industry that was so attractive is now totally gone. And the judgement that goes with dragging an innocent passenger off a plane is mind blowing. I surely understand there are plenty of nasty, uncooperative customers that DESERVE to get tossed. Their fellow passengers applaud when this happens. But the recent incident at United was SO poorly handled and could have easily been avoided by offering a higher than normal voucher for someone to get off the plane. Would $2000 have gotten volunteers—you bet.

God knows the industry has changed post 9/11, but the industry had long ago become “flying buses” and the arrogance and non-communication of virtually every airline is common. Of course, there are weather delays, equipment problems and other issues. But airlines are notorious for their obfuscation of issues and often outright lying. But dragging an innocent passenger off tops the list.

I still love United and I obviously I have reason to. But their generosity to me in the 70s is of little concern to today’s traveler and the beating they are getting, law suit they can expect, and revenue they are losing is self inflicted. Shame on them.

Their historical beautifully shot TV spots with Rhapsody in Blue/Gershwin music, Gene Hackman voice over, and well crafted copy once inspired many, me included. They were brilliant and the best ads in the airlines industry. However, today United Airlines is the biggest disaster and whipping boy of the industry and their problems won’t fade too quickly. No mercy since their woes are self inflicted, but I still love them nonetheless. Alas, I won’t be able to carry the day. Sorry, United.

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  1. ks says:

    Having done a lot of flying the past few years, a typical airline customer experience ranges from a high of “Reasonably okay, sort of” down to “At least I didn’t die.” Living in a post 9/11 world certainly doesn’t help, although I cynically wonder if the industry hasn’t leveraged this dynamic to enforce policies having more to do with revenue & margins than personal security.

    Somewhat related note: Lonny, your United/MBA story should be required reading for any soon-to-be graduate (or anyone, really) on how to maximize opportunities to achieve one’s goals. I love the part where you went to United and based your thesis around a need they had at the time. I join you in the “old as dirt” club yet still felt inspired. Thanks as always.

  2. John G Most says:

    Hello Lonny-

    I too was very disappointed when one of “my brands”, companies that I support and am loyal to–and even use in case studies as examples, make very poor divisions and actions. The big ones get singled out–and then we see more stories about other airlines that make the same mistakes.

    But I still fly United. I hold them accountable and I still believe. I’ve abandoned McDonalds which I believe lost their way after Ray Kroc and Fred Turner left. They understood the ethos of what McDonalds was and should be. Other CEOs never really got it and you see the loss of focus.

    Also loved learning more about how my first “boss”–teacher, advisor, mentor and friend got his start.

    Have always valued what you taught me and how you did it. I tell my students now about my first job as an intern: how you guided me and the famous number crunching I did which resulted in guiding the media philosophy for AMTRAKs plan: the Hub and Feeder analysis.

    It was three years worth of data: 125 markets, on ridership and revenue that I hand copied/transferred from the old IBM computer print outs. Since we had nonPVs I had to do all the calculations using a Texas Instruments Calculator. I burned out the first one and you got me a second to finish the work.

    It took weeks and weeks and late nights. But you were there to answer questions and guide me. I always tell my students, “Lonny always gave me enough rope to do my job–and just enough when I didn’t end up hanging myself in making mistakes.”

    Thanks again for you blogs and for being the first person along with Neil Tergesen, Peggy Lynch and Phil Wallace– to get my career headed in the right direction.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      I was a “veteran” (probably 1-2 years older than you). Glad you have good memories as do I about our early years at Needham Harper & Steers. Probably enjoyed myself more there than other other time in my career.

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