United Airlines plan never gets off the ground

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Not long ago, United Airlines announced that it would start charging for in-flight meals. Much to their surprise (but not anyone else's), customers were none-too-pleased with this plan. Sure, airline food has been the butt of hackneyed jokes for years, but that doesn't mean we (the consumers) want to give it up -- and we sure as hell don't want to pay for it.

With consumer backlash over higher fares, canceled flights and an overall less pleasant experience mounting across the airline industry, United Airlines decided this week that they couldn't afford to make customers even angrier. The company, in a letter sent out to customers earlier this week, back-pedaled on its food payment plan, saying:

"Thank you for your direct, candid feedback on the test we had planned to launch in the fourth quarter for food choices on some of our flights. We heard you and have decided not to move forward with the test of offering customers buy-on-board options in United Economy on certain trans-Atlantic flights. We will continue to offer complimentary hot meals on those flights.

"The response from you and many of our corporate customers, even before we launched the test, told us what we would have undoubtedly learned had we proceeded – you value our hot meal service in economy class for international flights."

(For the full letter, check out this posting at Elliott.org.)

I think this was a good step for United. The company obviously kept its ear to the ground after unveiling the plan, and, when it became apparent that the costs in customer satisfaction land would outweigh the gains made by charging $8 for a sandwich, they changed. This is exactly the sort of nimble CRM strategy that so many of our experts have written about over the past few months; the ability to communicate instantly, globally with consumers is worthless if the response still takes weeks or months.

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