United Airlines Managing Director for the UK and Ireland, Bob Schumacher (far right) pictured with (from left): Brian Hughes, corporate sales manager Ireland and Martina Coogan, country sales manager Ireland and Northern Ireland, United Airlines and Helen Downes, CEO, Shannon Chamber. Photograph by Eamon Ward
During his recent visit to Shannon, Bob Schumacher, Managing Director UK and Ireland with United Airlines took time out to talk to Shannon Chamber about the airline’s Shannon to New York/Newark route and serving the Irish market… United Airlines will celebrate 20 years serving Ireland on 13 May 2018…
Q: This route was once one of the most profitable routes for Continental – so, what has changed? What changes led to the cutting back on the Shannon and other services? Did something change with the B757 economics? Was it other factors? If so, what were they and how can they be addressed?
We monitor demand in all of the markets we serve and make business decisions based on what is good for the airline, our owners and our customers. At United Airlines we are in the business of being competitive and that means providing services to our customers from destinations they want to fly to and from, and making sure we do that profitably.
We have a proud record of serving Ireland and in fact this year we celebrate 20 years of serving the Irish Republic. We are pleased to be operating a daily service throughout summer 2018 offering customers in the west of Ireland a direct connection to the Big Apple. From our New York/Newark hub, United and United Express offer nearly 400 daily departures to more than 150 destinations – the most in North America, the most across the Atlantic, the most across the Pacific and the most to and from Latin America.
Q: What can regional stakeholders do to arrest this decline? What level of commitment does United need from the region?
We work very closely with our travel agency partners across Ireland and have strong relationships with businesses throughout the west of Ireland. I know that our team in Ireland, led by Martina Coogan, will continue to foster those good relations with a view to supporting this route and proving the value proposition of Shannon.
Q: What criteria does an airline like United factor in when selecting a destination? Is this determined by the airline itself (primary research) or in conjunction with the airport.
We look at many different factors when determining a new route including macro and local market economic conditions, expected demand and existing supply, connecting opportunities and of course our current position in the market. Additionally, we consider the best type of aircraft that may be used to service a particular route and its current availability in the fleet.
Q: What load factors influence this decision?
For commercial reasons it’s our company policy not to publish load factors for individual routes, but overall load factors on our Ireland services have been in line with those for our international routes as a whole: 75.6 per cent is our published year-to-date figure for February 2018.
Q: Is making a destination decision more difficult today? Is the changing competitive landscape more challenging? If United was working from a blank canvas today, would Shannon feature? If not, why not?
The airline industry has always been fiercely competitive so we are familiar with that landscape. We continue to serve Shannon as well as Dublin and our twentieth anniversary this year underpins our commitment to the Irish market.
One of the ingredients to our longevity in the market is our product. At United Airlines we are focused on ensuring we offer all of our customers the very best service. By way of example, that is why we recently invested in the United Polaris product for our premium customers. Following more than 12,000 hours of research, United identified sleep as a priority for its business class passengers. The all-new, sleep-focused United Polaris business class debuted on flights from Ireland on 1 December 2016. The brand new business cabin offers a reimagined, sleep-enhancing experience for intercontinental travellers. The first phase of United Polaris is now available onboard and features an elevated inflight food and beverage experience, custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue and exclusive amenity kits with products from Soho House & Co’s Cowshed Spa.
Q: Are customer demographics and new online booking engines, which generate routes and fare choice, influencing customer choice e.g. point of entry into a country…Dublin vs Shannon in Ireland?
Customer choice is constantly changing and it is our job to make sure we are offering customers everything they expect from a world class airline. It is the whole journey that is important – from booking to landing and everything in between. Customer choice is important and that is why we offer our Irish customers an enormous choice of connections through our New York/Newark hub. In terms of booking, we want to make it as easy as possible for all of our customers to be able to book flights with United Airlines.
Q: With technology developments generating ever increasing effectiveness and efficiently, are there new aircraft models that would suit routes to/from airports such as Shannon…e.g. What is the equivalent, in 2018 terms, of the B757 model that led to the breakthrough Continental services back in the mid 1990s?
The B757 works well for us on certain routes and we continue to monitor demand should we need to adapt aircraft size. United operates a modern fleet which is the most fuel-efficient among U.S. network carriers (when adjusted for cabin size). With a total of 744 mainline aircraft, we have the capacity and flexibility to match demand on particular routes with the right size of aircraft, but for now the 757 continues to match the market economics in Shannon.
Q: The seamless connection at Newark, post pre-clearance at Shannon, to United flights has been commented on as very positive. Does United talk about or promote the benefits of this kind of experience in promoting the Shannon routes? Is there potential to have United, through its own or partner services, develop Shannon as a transit point to/from North America /Europe based on the seamless connectivity at Newark?
We are pleased to continue to serve the west of Ireland through Shannon and it is true that pre-clearance is a huge ‘win’ for the airport. It is not for us but more for the authorities in Ireland to determine the role of Shannon Airport and infrastructure in the future.
As for New York/Newark, it is located only 14 miles from downtown Manhattan and offers the fastest surface transfer journeys to many parts of the city, including the AirTrain service to New York Penn Station in midtown Manhattan with a journey time of less than 30 minutes. And of course, Irish customers can connect through our Newark hub to hundreds of points across the Americas.
Whilst the airport has been a leader in the areas of congestion mitigation innovation and the campaign for NextGen technology, United is also upgrading the customer experience at New York/Newark at every point of the customer’s journey with world-class retail shops and leading-edge technology. We are upgrading check-in facilities and baggage screening systems and will unveil a United Polaris lounge for international business class customers in 2018.
Q: How do we square the circle between airlines who want activity clustered in one large, busy hub, and the opportunities presented by excess capacity and a better customer experience at less congested airports, such as Shannon? If you were the Minister for Transport and Tourism, what would you do to regulate airline policy in a country of Ireland’s size and uneven population distribution?
What is important for United Airlines is that we are able to provide services for customers from right across the island of Ireland. We are proud of our track record in the Irish market and we work closely with both Shannon and Dublin airports to ensure that the facilities at both are of the highest quality and suitable for our customers.
Q: What about the role of new technology – how is United doing on this front?
Technology is changing all the time and we are committed to not only staying ahead but making sure that our customers have access to the very latest IT that will make their journeys easier.
Innovation is key for the future – for our customers and for United Airlines. We are in the business of constantly staying ahead of the game and providing the technology our customers want to see. We want to use technology to make the travel experience more personal for our customers and eliminate as much stress as possible. We continue to invest in technology that puts flight information and transactions at customers’ fingertips, with an app that enables mobile bookings, status updates, check-in, boarding passes and more. We were the first U.S. airline to offer customers the ability to scan their passports on iOS and Android mobile devices to check in for international flights. We recently announced a new enhancement to the United app that will allow customers to receive boarding passes when connecting to 19 Star Alliance airline partners on their smart phones, a feature which no other U.S. carrier currently offers. This functionality will be available for customers travelling on United who are making an onward connection on another partner carrier and will improve the functionality of United’s award winning app, which is relied on over 500 million times a year by customers. With the newest version of the United app, our customers will also be able to change and cancel flights, add their MileagePlus and United Club cards to the Apple Wallet and access other helpful travel tools.