A KEEN FO­CUS ON THE PEO­PLE

United Air­lines’ suc­cess in con­nect­ing US and China des­ti­na­tions is all down to pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the needs of their staff and cus­tomers

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By YU RAN in Shang­hai

yu­ran@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Wal­ter Dias firmly be­lieves that a com­pany in the ser­vice in­dus­try will strug­gle to keep cus­tomers sat­is­fied if its employees aren’t happy to be­gin with.

This has been his mantra for al­most 29 years and it forms a vi­tal part of his pas­sion for dis­sect­ing prob­lems in or­der to come up with new so­lu­tions to pro­vide bet­ter cus­tomer ser­vice.

“When you are in the air­line busi­ness, it is really all about the peo­ple — it is a cus­tomer ser­vice thing, you really have to ap­proach things in a more per­sonal way. This has been an im­por­tant les­son I’ve learnt through the years,” said Dias, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of United Air­lines for Greater China and Korea.

Some of the ways the com­pany cares for their staff can be seen in poli­cies such as the United Profit Shar­ing Plan, which stip­u­lates that employees will re­ceive a por­tion of the prof­its when the com­pany earns more than $10 mil­lion in pre-tax earn­ings dur­ing a fis­cal year. In 2014, a to­tal of $235 mil­lion was dis­trib­uted among el­i­gi­ble employees.

Other poli­cies in­clude monthly per­for­mance bonuses where employees can earn up to $125 a month based on the air­line’s on-time per­for­mance sta­tis­tics and cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion scores, as well as the United 100 Pro­gram, which al­lows employees to nom­i­nate their peers for an award that rec­og­nizes ex­tra­or­di­nary cus­tomer ser­vice ac­com­plish­ments or pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions to the to the main­land, Dias spent most of his ca­reer work­ing for Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines, a ma­jor US air­line that was founded in 1934 and head­quar­tered in Hous­ton, Texas.

In May 2010, the air­line an­nounced that it was making a merger of equals with UAL Cor­po­ra­tion, the par­ent com­pany of United Air­lines, via a stock swap. Con­ti­nen­tal’s shares were ac­quired by UAL Cor­po­ra­tion and the ac­qui­si­tion was com­pleted in Oc­to­ber 2010, at which time the hold­ing com­pany was re­named United Con­ti­nen­tal Hold­ings.

“I was very ex­cited that Con­ti­nen­tal and United were merg­ing — from a net­work per­spec­tive, it was like a mar­riage made in heaven. For us in Asia, we were able to com­bine the flights from the west and east coasts of the US to China and we were able to pro­vide a larger va­ri­ety of op­tions for Chi­nese con­sumers to choose from,” he said.

Dias’ foray into Asia be­gan over two decades ago, fol­low­ing his stint in the in­ter­nal au­dit depart­ment of the com­pany where he was con­stantly on the look­out for ways to im­prove cus­tomer ser­vice, cost sav­ings and ef­fi­ciency.

“This ex­pe­ri­ence al­lowed me to peek into the dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the air­line and, within a short time, helped me understand how they worked to­gether to make a suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tion,” said Dias.

Be­sides be­ing the first air­line to fly the New York-Hong Kong route as well as cross the polar route, Con­ti­nen­tal was only the third US air­line to bridge the dis­tance be­tween the US and China. In 2004, the air­line had flights con­nect­ing New York to Beijing, mark­ing its first step into the Chi­nese main­land.

To­day, United is the largest air­line in terms of pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity for trips be­tween the US and China, offering daily flights from Shang­hai, Beijing and Hong Kong to Amer­i­can cities.

China has for the past 30 years been a key mar­ket for United Air­lines and this looks to be even more ev­i­dent now that the US ranks among one of the top tourist des­ti­na­tions for Chi­nese trav­el­ers, as re­vealed by re­cent mar­ket sur­veys.

Dias noted that the com­pany is adopt­ing a “China cen­tric” ap­proach to their mar­ket­ing ef­forts in or­der to stand out from the com­pe­ti­tion, with some of the value added ser­vices be­ing the in­clu­sion of Chi­nese cuisines on flights and Man­darin lan­guage ser­vices.

“The num­ber of Chi­nese cus­tomers are get­ting close to equal­ing the num­ber of US cus­tomers,” said Dias.

“Peo­ple in China to­day want a bet­ter travel ex­pe­ri­ence. They are re­duc­ing the num­ber of des­ti­na­tions dur­ing a trip and spend­ing more time at each place, a stark con­trast from a decade ago when they wanted to see as many places as pos­si­ble in the short­est amount of time.”

Be­tween 2010 and 2015, the to­tal num­ber of out­bound Chi­nese tourists to the US in­creased from 800,000 to 2.1 mil­lion. The fig­ures are ex­pected to hit 6.6 mil­lion as early as 2021, making the Chi­nese mar­ket the big­gest source of trav­el­ers for the US.

In or­der to stay cur­rent with the dy­namic re­gional economies within China, United Air­lines con­stantly mon­i­tors the re­gional mar­kets in search of new busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. In 2014, United Air­lines opened its Chengdu-San Francisco route af­ter hav­ing iden­ti­fied the Chi­nese city as be­ing a hot spot for for­eign in­vestors, while a trial route con­nect­ing Xi’an and San Francisco will be avail­able from May 10, 2016.

“United Air­lines is the first to fly from a non-tier-one city so we are very ex­cited to be the pioneer. Xi’an rep­re­sents our next step for­ward,” said Dias.

De­scrib­ing United as “a tech­nol­ogy com­pany with wings”, Dias added that the com­pany was the first air­line in the world to use elec­tronic board­ing passes and con­tin­ues to in­vest in new tech­nol­ogy such as a new en­hanced web­site and mo­bile apps. The air­line has also been making con­tin­u­ous in­vest­ments in new air­crafts since the merger with Con­ti­nen­tal. United had placed a mas­sive or­der of 65 Boe­ing 787 Dream­lin­ers when the air­craft was first launched and there are cur­rently 25 of them in United’s fleet.

With re­gard to the air­line’s fu­ture plans, Dias is very con­fi­dent that United will ex­pand its net­work to serve more sec­ondary cities in China.

“The fu­ture is look­ing very bright and we will al­ways be on the look­out for ways to in­crease cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and at­tract more Chi­nese con­sumers with our out­stand­ing travel ser­vices,” said Dias.

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Wal­ter Dias, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of United Air­lines for Greater China and Korea, notes that the com­pany is adopt­ing a “China cen­tric” ap­proach to their mar­ket­ing ef­forts in or­der to stand out from the com­pe­ti­tion.

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