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United Channel 9

I flew back from New York on United on Monday. I’ve done this trip with them 3 times this year and it seems to work out well. For one thing their flights don’t seem to get that full, whilst the BA trips from the same terminal look as if they are thronged. I get checked in and through security really quickly at JFK so it’s all quite painless.

This time, there was fog at Heathrow and we ended up having to divert to Cardiff to get more fuel… where refuelling ended up taking over 2 hours. On the face of it, this could easily have been a bad experience in which I suppose I could have sat there thinking of ways to blame United. What redeemed it for me was United’s Channel 9, which lets you listen to the cockpit’s conversations with Air Traffic control. This is a feature which is, I think, unique to United.

Now ATC calls tend to follow a highly disciplined pattern, designed to keep them short and functional. But of course, little bits of human conversation and humour periodically slip in. And there was quite a bit of banter going on around the whole fog diversion experience, which we where sharing with several other planes making the same diversion.

So during the Cardiff diversion, I was able to hear the inside story, including the Captain’s patient if slightly frustrated efforts to get the fuel truck to pay attention to us. So instead of relying on the somewhat stilted cabin announcements, I felt I knew what was really going on. And feeling like you’re getting the truth makes a really big difference.

What United need to do is capture the openness of Channel 9 and get some of that spirit into its cabin announcements, which are very scripted and feel quite at odds with what I hear on the channel. And as a relatively frequent flyer this year, that scripting really starts to grate.

In fact, they could take the Channel 9 ethos and spread it through all their marketing. I guess that its recent problems have put United on the defensive, and I often feel there’s an unreality to much of their marketing generally.

But Channel 9 points to a different way of going about things… and they should get more of that into their marketing. Blogging would be an obvious next step.