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.

6 thoughts on “United Channel 9

  1. Jack Yan

    Johnnie, Channel 9 is one of my favourites. I always listen to it on my flights within the States. You feel in control: when 30,000 ft is communicated, you feel the plane rise up. The other transparent feature I found was on Air Tahiti Nui last month: you can view down the plane (there must be a camera on the bottom) and see what’s below you; and you can have a view out of the cockpit, too. It makes perfect sense to extend this to other aspects of marketing: an airline that keeps customers informed, at every level.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Great examples Johnnie (and Jack). I always hear them announce the availability of Channel 9, but it’s never piqued my interest. I think air travel can be so tedious, so I’m probably looking for ways to distract myself, not engage further with the experience. Doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t enjoy it; that by engaging with the flight I might feel differently about it.

    I was on a JAL flight that had a camera outside, and you could see the taxi/takeoff/landing stuff on the video screen – I think they shifted to the digital map during the times we were airborne, but definitely an interesting feature.

    I wonder what lessons in transparency were learned during that JetBlue flight with the stuck landing gear, where passengers were watching live TV coverage of their plight/flight.

  3. Declan Elliott

    Uniteds Channel 9 inspired Lenn Pryor to create Microsofts channel 9 community. Shel Israels raw notes from his interview with Lenn for the Naked Conversations book project are here.


    Still hoping for a live video feed from the undercarriage of take off and landing. Would really liven up approaches to some of the more interesting located airports. The old Hong Kong one in particular.

  4. Jack Yan

    Declan: good point! Kai Tak was scary!

       In 2001 (the last time I flew them, from Osaka to Seoul), All Nippon Air showed the runway taxiing and the take-off on the big screen: the former from the cockpit view and the latter from beneath. Then, sadly, it would switch to a rerun of Bewitched (probably the only half-hour show they had with an English, Japanese and Korean soundtrack).

  5. Robin

    I hear that Long Beach, CA (US) has a really efficient airport. Also, it’s conveniently located near a college (Cal State Long Beach), which I hear has an honors class comprised of students writing theses on marketing topics that would greatly benefit from a guest lecturer who knows more than any textbook we (erm, they) use. 🙂

    Appreciation: a friend asked me who I would be most excited to hear speak and you were at the top of a very short list.


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