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Will a Partial Silver Strategy Work for United?

Recently, United Airlines announced that it would reduce its service to some of the biggest cities it serves and shift assets to the service of smaller cities. Big cities like Nagoya, Japan and Chicago will lose some service, while cities like Grand Rapids, Michigan and Gillette, Wyoming will gain service.

We have seen this before. In the very early years after airline deregulation, Piedmont Airlines stepped back and watched the largest airlines in the country rush past them to serve the largest cities in the U.S.: New York Chicago, Los Angeles, and so forth. Once the crowd had blown by, Piedmont initiated service to smaller cities, where there was less competition and higher prices. This strategy proved to be very successful for Piedmont. For several years, it enjoyed high profits and a sterling reputation.

So, can United pull off the same strategy? Unlikely. Really, the airline isn’t trying to use a Silver strategy exclusively. Piedmont was a small competitor in the marketplace. TWA, Eastern, American, United, Northwest and Delta were all larger. It had little likelihood of head-to-head success against these larger carriers. Instead, it chose to follow a pattern of competition that has proven successful time and again for smaller competitors. We call this a Silver strategy. (See “Rare Mettle: Gold and Silver Strategies to Succeed in Hostile Markets” in StrategyStreet/Tools/Perspectives.) Part of this strategy is to focus service on segments of customers where there is less competition and where average unit prices are higher. These are always smaller market segments.

This strategy is not appropriate for United. As the number two carrier in the country, it can not succeed in building a Silver strategy without destroying itself in the process.

On the other hand, United is not trying to follow a Silver strategy exclusively. It wants to take advantage of a market that Silver competitors would naturally serve. United is tweaking its strategy on the margin to serve smaller cities with less competition and higher prices per seat mile flown. This set of new markets will complement, rather than replace its big hub and spoke network.

These changes will help, but not save, United. United’s big problem is that it remains a high cost producer in the marketplace, even against some of its large competitors. Until United can stand toe to toe with low cost competitors on equivalent routes, it should continue to weaken in the marketplace. Whether it can do that eventually is as much in the hands of its unions as it is in the control of management. Not promising. See the history of the domestic steel industry.

Posted 8/16/08

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