United Airlines Vice President Atlantic and Pacific Sales, Marcel Fuchs, serves as the carrier’s Chief Commercial Representative for the Atlantic and Pacific regions, a position he has held since 2015. Prior to this, he was Managing Director Sales – mainland Europe.
Below Marcel, who began his travel industry career in 1975, provides details about some of United’s current initiatives as well as a few plans for the future.
United Airlines recently launched a new ultra-long-haul route from Sydney to Houston. What new benefits does this service offer business travellers?
The obvious benefit is linking two great hubs for the first time in what is currently the fourth longest service in the world. It opens so many connections for both business and leisure travel. From Houston, United offers nearly 500 daily flights to more than 170 destinations around the world. Flying from Sydney, you arrive into Houston in the morning and that allows you access to 70 cities with same-day connections. So, what were once two-stop destinations from Sydney, can now be accessed with only one stop. Many of these are in the south of the US, such as Florida or New Orleans or Nashville. It also allows for a shorter domestic connection into New York or Chicago. And then there’s places like Mexico, where we fly to 19 destinations, as well as the Caribbean and many destinations in Central America.
Spanning 13,850 kilometres, the Sydney-Houston service is United’s second-longest flight after Los Angeles-Singapore (14,114 kms). Will United be looking at introducing more similar services?
We’ve had great feedback so there may be further changes or additions in the future. The key is the aircraft. We’re now operating the Dreamliner 787-9 and that plays a huge role in how far we can fly, and being able to fly comfortably. We have introduced 11 new international long-haul routes in the last 11 months. This shows United’s commitment to growing internationally. If opportunities arise and make commercial sense, we will certainly consider these opportunities.
How does United ensure passenger comfort on such long flights?
Again, this is all about the Dreamliner. It’s imperative to have an aircraft that makes you feel good at the end of long trip. The Dreamliner’s cabin is pressurised to a lower altitude, which improves comfort. It has larger windows and lighting set to the appropriate time of day. For corporate travellers lucky enough to be at the front of the aircraft, we have our Polaris service, introduced in December 2016. This is being progressively rolled out across our network and includes a new seat that ensures greater comfort for the journey. Additionally, we offer pyjamas and slippers, bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue, all designed to allow people to better sleep and work. We have Wi-Fi available on all our aircraft, whether crossing an ocean or flying domestically, or sitting in economy or business class. People like to have the option to stay connected while they travel, whether this involves doing work emails or a presentation. Having this capability makes it a little bit more pleasurable for a long-haul flight.
What major developments is United Airlines looking to bring to market in the coming 12 months?
Later this year, we’ll begin to introduce United’s Premium Plus. Available on select international flights, United® Premium Plus will give you more space, comfort and amenities. The seats will be more spacious and you’ll enjoy upgraded dining on china dinnerware, free alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit and more.
This year, we’ll be introducing more of the new, all-aisle-access seats in United Polaris business class. We’re also opening United Polaris lounges in San Francisco, New York/Newark and Houston Intercontinental this summer, and in Los Angeles this autumn. In all of these lounges, plus the recently expanded lounge in Chicago O’Hare, United Polaris customers will enjoy high-end shower suites, rest pods with day beds, and preflight dining. United is the only U.S. airline to offer a full preflight dining room for its business class customers. This is a particularly fantastic addition for business travellers and will no doubt be welcomed by our customers.
How has technology changed United’s service offering in the past five years?
The availability of in-flight Wi-Fi has had a huge impact on the industry. Personally, I couldn’t imagine the day this would happen, but here we are! People often talk about industry game changers – and this is a genuine example. United was an early adopter and we noticed just how quickly people took it up. We have a great mobile app that allows passengers to track their bags and store passports and use it to go through security. They can also make reservations and access boarding passes. The app tells passengers when their bag has been loaded on an aircraft, when it comes off the aircraft, and then when it’s on the belt.
Last year, United introduced the ability for passengers to check in for flights and flight availability on Amazon Alexa and Google Home. This was the first instance when passengers could check such information on a remote device.
For our staff on the ground, we’ve provided upgraded equipment so they can deal with customers much more effectively. A United staff member can now check-in a bag in most places in an airport rather than having to go to a desk. They can print a bag tag on the spot from their belt and send passengers on their way. They can also look at customer bookings. We have also provided iPhones for every single flight attendant so that they can access customer information at touch of button rather than having to find a screen to check.
In your experience, how has business travel changed during your career and what expectations do corporate travellers have today?
The number one priority for passengers is to get to their destination on time. This is consistent. They also want access to a flight network that is going to be efficient. If they are connecting, they want an efficient airport where they can do some work or have some downtime. Having good connections that will keep them moving rather than being stuck somewhere unnecessarily is also important. Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly important. Travellers like to be able to have the option to connect, even if they don’t always use it. Finally, people want to get a decent night’s sleep so they arrive at their destination as fresh as possible.
The travelling workforce can span several decades in age and experience. How well do you think United services each of these generations’ specific needs, and why?
I think we have a wide range of options for people of all ages if they want to be entertained on board. We have Wi-Fi for the younger business traveller, and that’s important. But we also have some unique offerings, such as wine tasting, which we find a whole range of people are interested in. Some passengers just want to sleep. They’re not that interested in engaging, and we can understand and cater to that. It goes without saying that most people want comfort and service, and this remains a priority for United Airlines. Some travellers love having access to the latest travel technology and all that this entails, such as checking in and getting all their information via mobile apps. Others still prefer a traditional boarding pass, which is fine. So, it’s about doing all you can to cater to all wishes. When we launched our Polaris product, we did about 12,000 hours of research. This shows how it’s important to us to have access to the opinions of a wide range of business travellers. In that instance we discovered that sleep was the number one priority, whether for people in their 20s or much older.
United just released its best-ever operational results. How will this improve the customer experience?
One key recent achievement for United was recording the least amount of cancelled flights in the company’s history. That’s a positive for the customer in that they can rely on their flight leaving and getting them where they want to be. We were number one in the US against all US carriers. When we measure our departures as being on time, we refer to being “exactly” on time. Doing it this way gives United customers a comfortable feeling that they know they’re going to reach their destination as planned.
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About Marcel Fuchs
Marcel began his career in 1975 with international freight forwarding company Frank Ltd in Zurich, Switzerland, before taking a position at British Airways in 1979. He joined BramblesRuys in Sydney, Australia, in 1982 and then returned to Zurich to work for Pan Am in 1984. He held many positions with Pan Am, including managing director airport operations, before becoming United Airlines’ general manager for Switzerland in 1991. Marcel became general manager for Germany in 1997 and in 2002 took on additional responsibility for France. He is married and has two children.