How traveller demand impacts airline network planning

‘If an airline adds a new non-stop service to a destination, it could create opportunities for hotels to focus their marketing efforts on these customers.’

Darren Scott

United Airlines

What to listen for

Ever wonder how airlines approach network planning and decide where to launch new routes? In this episode, your hosts go straight to the source: Director of Atlantic and Hawaii Network Planning at United Airlines, Darren Scott.

Listen to this week’s episode to hear Darren share his expertise on:

The virtuous cycle created by airline routes and lodging availability;

What factors impact airline network planning;

How shifts in traveller demand inspire new non-stop routes.

Boy at the airport running to watch planes on the runway through a window as he waits for his flight.

Read the transcript

[00:00:04] Sally The travel experience is powered by all of you. Welcome to Powering Travel, brought to you by Expedia Group. I’m Sally Smith.

[00:00:12] Brandon And I’m Brandon Ehrhardt. Together, we’ll explore how experts are evolving the industry and discover the latest trends in hospitality. It’s a full flight. We’ve saved you seat 1A. Now boarding all rows, all passengers. Powering Travel is next.

[00:00:27] Sally Today, we’re going to touch on a very interesting topic that I’m sure many of us have always wondered about. What really goes into determining flight paths and route selections for airlines? Air travel is one of the many important aspects of the full trip funnel that we have been talking about in previous episodes, as it impacts the travel industry at large, including the way hospitality partners adapt to the changing landscape of travel and transport. We’re joined by Darren Scott from United Airlines to give a behind-the-scenes look on air travel and more specifically, all of the details around flight paths and route selections for airlines, including an exciting new route for United.

[00:01:05] Brandon We’re excited to share with you the conversation we have with Darren as he offers such a unique vantage point with his experience in network planning. Oh, I thought I knew everything there was to know about United because I worked there, but I spent most of this episode learning. We’re excited to share that with you and all the various aspects that he covers. First, let’s tell you more about him. Darren is a director for Atlantic and Hawaii Network Planning at United Airlines and manages the team responsible for evaluating deployment of capacity to Europe, Middle East, Africa and Hawaii. He also coordinates network initiatives with stakeholders, including revenue management sales and with Atlantic Joint Venture Partners of Lufthansa Group and Air Canada. Since 2017, United has announced over 30 new transatlantic routes, including the addition of service to four cities in Africa, and has grown service to cover more destinations in Europe than all other US carriers combined. Darren has worked for United for 13 years and was previously responsible for network planning in the Latin America region. Way back when, Darren was also an Expedia Group employee. Let’s jump into the conversation. Let’s jump in on some of the topics that I think you are the subject matter expert on. We’re going to talk a lot of things air today. We’re going to talk about network planning, how United goes about selecting their new destinations.

Let’s start here. Airlines help promote tourism and demand across the world. And so, they influence not only travellers, but other lines of business across the industry from car rental companies, cruise lines and lodging. How do travel leaders keep updated on all of the changes and adapt their strategies, in your opinion?  

[00:02:37] Darren Absolutely. So, it’s really critical that we have a good understanding on customer needs and what demand is out there, and how it’s changing over time. Focusing on understanding airlift is important because it’s sustainable based on having robust demand. So, for example, if an airline adds a new, non-stop service to a destination, it makes that destination easier to reach and could create opportunities for hotels to focus their marketing efforts on these customers. And what this does is, it creates a virtuous cycle of demand that preserves and grows the airlift to the market.  


[00:03:12] Sally I wanted to play off that because I think it’s really interesting for some of our listeners to understand what type of considerations you look at when contemplating adding either brand-new routes or adding additional routes. What do you use to help make those decisions?  

[00:03:32] Darren So, we really start with a customer and wherever a customer demand is now. But everything we do is, we would look at destinations that we can grow the pie with new service. So, for example, our new service to the Canary Islands that launched yesterday, is an example of a market that’s been very hard for Americans to reach historically, but with a non-stop service, we see potential to grow the pie. So, it’s really a combination of making things easier for customers.  

[00:03:55] Sally Do you look at the total picture of going into a destination meeting, looking at traveller demand, like you say—that makes perfect sense—but looking at hotel ADRs, compression, other factors about travel into that market? I mean, people travel for many reasons, but those going on leisure travel... looking at the total price of what that might cost for an individual, or are you focused mostly just on what that air component is?  

[00:04:21] Darren Yeah. So, I mean, it’s the whole destination picture that drives demand. So, some destinations are going to be more focused on VFR demand, which is really a function of potentially different ethnic populations and just the size of the market, whereas leisure destinations really need to have the right product and available product in the market to meet customer needs. So, for example, somewhere like the Canary Islands, we were very comfortable going in because we knew the lodging product there was up to the standards that Americans are looking for leisure vacations and also provides so many unique experiences that will make the trip worthwhile for Americans. And the key thing holding people back was the fact it was so hard to get to. So really, having appealing destinations and attractive lodging product is key to growing these leisure markets in our network.  

[00:05:10] Brandon Sounds like we need an off-site in the Canary Islands, Sally. Makes sense, we can get there easily now.  

[00:05:15] Sally A hundred percent. 

[00:05:15] Brandon Quick question for you on, like, as you think about business versus leisure destinations, how does the network planning aspect of that change? Can you just dive a little deeper if it’s a leisure destination? And just thinking about things like local traffic versus flow traffic, based on a business-leisure split, are you looking for more local traffic on one over the other or how do you approach that?

[00:05:38] Darren Yeah, absolutely. So, the nice thing about being a network carrier is we have hubs that provide really strong connectivity. So, our hub in Newark provides connectivity to too many destinations across the country that supplements for large local demand in the New York area. So, when we add a new flight, say, to the Canary Islands or the Azores, we can combine demand from different origins and destinations. The nice thing about leisure markets is because leisure travellers are taking longer, more meaningful trips, they’re more flexible to fly in a market that might be operated less than daily. So, we can go into a market like Tenerife three times a week. And then over time, we can grow it as the demand materialises. Whereas a business market like London, we’re up to seven daily New York to London flights this summer. And that’s critically important for a business market like this: to have a shuttle-like schedule so that people can arrange for travel around their business commitments, and make a really short trip to get in and out if they need to.

[00:06:37] Brandon That’s awesome. And actually, like, makes so much sense in the way that you describe it. And I totally agree: leisure trips are more meaningful than business trips. One other quick question I have for you. Coming out of Covid... you know, I think during Covid, we saw the type of travel shift. There was more of a propensity to fly leisure destinations. So, I saw like, United started operating in Indianapolis to Hilton Head Island non-stop. Not something I ever thought I would see in my life. And I think it was super-cool because you get to expose new people to new destinations. How has United and how have you taken what you’ve learnt during Covid about the leisure traveller and applied that to the post-Covid world? Is there anything that you learnt or took forward, or any kind of tactics that you, that United, deployed during COVID specific to, like, you know, these point-to-point flights that you’ll continue or any other colour that you’d like to give us there?

[00:07:32] Darren Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in Covid, demand changed dramatically. And we had to be very nimble to shape our network around demand. And demand was driven not only by the mix of leisure and business travel, but also by travel restrictions that varied by country. So basically, the Covid recovery period has given us a lot of opportunities to experiment with new content in the network, and then it has shaped our network coming out of Covid to look different to what it looked like prior to Covid. So, we went into Covid serving one destination in Africa seasonally, and now we serve four destinations in Africa on a year-round basis, as one example of how we’ve shaped the network over time.

[00:08:10] Sally Now, in the past few weeks, we’ve heard that exciting news that testing requirements to come back into the US have been lifted, which is just fantastic news for so many travellers wanting to go abroad internationally, as well as those travellers wanting to come into the US. How do you see that impacting your business and air travel in general?

[00:08:31] Darren Yeah, so that’s a point of friction. The testing to come into the US was friction and risk in the travel experience, and having that lifted now makes it so much easier to leave the US. So, there’s going to be a segment of pent-up demand that’s now ready to travel. And we expect it will really help not only bring in those visitors into the US, but also make Americans more confident going overseas. We’ve seen in Europe as countries started reopening last summer, but as restrictions got lifted, demand immediately grew. So, really excited about being able to make the travel experience easier for our customers.

[00:09:07] Sally That’s great. I will say, your app has great information in it about getting ready for your trip. So, even during Covid, when I was travelling, I could go into the United App and feel pretty confident about what I would need. So, that’s helpful because I think we’ve had some other guests where just knowledge of what to do over the past two years has been so difficult. So, the easier you can make it, the better.

[00:09:26] Darren Yeah, it’s been incredibly confusing, but the Travel-Ready Center that was built into the app allows you to get the specific requirements for your trip, upload your documentation for verification before you even get to the airport, so you can skip lines, and just make it easier for customers in this environment where rules have been changing day to day. And I think that’s a good point that coming out of Covid, entry requirements like visas, etc., we’re now going to be much better equipped to help customers understand what they need to travel.

[00:09:54] Sally That’s fantastic. And as challenging as the last two years have been, to your point, being nimble, changing different things, learning quickly, are there any other positive changes that you implemented coming out of Covid that you’re just excited about for the future of travel?


[00:10:10] Darren Yeah, absolutely. So, the ConnectionsSaver system that United’s rolled out is a fantastic tool that uses real-time operational and customer data to determine if we can hold a flight for late connections and still arrive at its destination on time. This has saved countless connections for our customers, and made it easier for our airport teams to make the right decisions to make our customers’ travel easier. We’ve also rolled out Agent on Demand, which is real-time virtual assistance at the airport, but from agents across the system. So, if we have a cancelled flight or disruption in a given destination, we now have a larger pool of customer service reps across the country to help take care of our customers. And this all started from the desire for contactless interaction during Covid, but it’s really going to be part of making it easier for customers going forward.

[00:11:01] Sally I love the connection piece. I’ve been sitting on a plane sweating that connection so many times. That’s a great improvement.

[00:11:09] Darren Yeah, we’ll use the app to communicate to you if we’re holding your connection, and how long that walk would be to your next gate, etc., just to make it easier for you.

[00:11:18] Brandon I’m going to give you guys some kudos here because I’ve benefited from this. The way that you word it in the app is, like, if you’re checking your flight, it says, ‘We’re holding the plane for a couple extra minutes, so that some people can make their trip’. And when you’re going to a single-flight destination, whether that be a leisure or beach destination that operates, you know, infrequently or once daily—or like a ski destination, where it’s once a day and the weather can be hectic—I think it’s just a great tool for a consumer to feel confident in the experience. Is United going to hold the plane for three hours for you? They’re not. But are they going to make every effort to make sure that you can get to your trip? They are. And I think that is the difference as a traveller. Like, it’s just not about just the schedule or being on time. You hold the plane for ten minutes and you figure out ways that, you know, you can get the plane to the destination faster, whether that’s cutting the route or there is a little bit of bank time put into it. I just think it’s a great experience for travellers. So, that is awesome that United has doubled down on improving the traveller experience. The guest experience is something that we are constantly focused on here at Expedia Group, so it’s awesome that you guys have done that.

[00:12:24] Darren That’s good. Yeah, I’m glad.

[00:12:28] Brandon There really are so many factors that go into network planning, and I love hearing that we are going to make it easier for travellers to be exposed to new destinations, like non-stops. Non-stop flights, specifically. Game changer. So many reasons, but it’s all about that efficiency, right? If it’s one flight to get somewhere instead of two, we’re opening the world to the possibilities of new travellers. That’s really exciting.

[00:12:50] Sally Completely agree, Brandon, especially as it pertains to the destinations and knowing the complexities the entire industry has faced over the past few years with the pandemic, it’s eye-opening to see how United has taken steps to ease the travel experience with the constant change. Another factor Darren touched on was the changes in travel restrictions, which we all know can be frustrating and sometimes impossible to follow. In fact, something that I think everyone has experienced over the past few years in travel is taking a trip and feeling confused about the requirements and what might be needed in various destinations. We’ve seen that travellers are looking for the easiest experience they can find, and reducing end-to-end friction in the experience is key.

[00:13:40] Brandon We just talked about the Canary Islands and new destinations, you know, serving for different places in Africa that United is doing today compared with their schedules of years past, where that was much reduced. How has a more fuel-efficient plane created opportunities for United to go to destinations that they haven’t gone to in the past?  

[00:14:01] Darren I mean, the 787 Dreamliner is an efficient airplane and also has the range to make longer flights. So, for example, we have more service to South Africa than any other US carrier. And we’re serving Cape Town and Johannesburg. And Johannesburg is a challenging market to operate out of—given the altitude—so the 787 and its efficiency and its performance allow us to have a non-stop link into South Africa for the first time.  

[00:14:31] Brandon Cool. I think the other thing, and I know this is a little out of your wheelhouse because I believe that you do Atlantic and Hawaii, but domestically, some of the newer regional jets specifically—and I’m the certified plane nerd here—like the Embraer 175, which has a lower capacity than a 737, but has that range where they can, you know, take a three, three-and-a-half-hour flight. That’s really opened up the world to travel. Is United looking into how they can make or increase their number of non-stop flights based on the fuel economy of these aircraft? Or how does United approach network planning with an evolving fleet that can fly further, more efficiently?  

[00:15:11] Darren As we have more efficient aircraft join the fleet, we take those into consideration as we look at new opportunities.  Things like operating a non-stop flight out of Johannesburg would have been out of the question in the past before we had the Dreamliner in our fleet. But we also leverage the growth and getting new planes in our fleet to improve the customer experience. So, talking about regional jets, for example, in Newark, we’ve gone to an all two-cabin, regional jet fleet. So, all of their flights out of Newark offer a first-class cabin and elevated customer experience, given the amount of demand in the New York area and our desire to make the customer experience the best possible.  

[00:15:52] Brandon You know what I love that United does? They do a great job of knowing who I am as a customer. And like, am I willing to buy the first-class ticket when I’m initially booking my flight? I’m not always, actually, I’m never, never really doing that. However, after a long work trip and it’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to upgrade to first-class for 199 bucks for your red-eye from Seattle to Chicago?’ I am the first person to say, ‘Yes, please’. So, I think it’s a great way, like, through dynamic pricing, customers like myself can experience both cabins. Because at the end of the day, like, what would have happened with that seat? It’s unknown. Could have been upgraded, could have been sold. But I was able to experience the product, and I think it was, you know, something that will continue to keep me looking for elevated products like premium economy and business. So, I think it’s a really cool way to use dynamic pricing. You’ve introduced travellers who typically fly in the back to experience the comforts of up front.  

[00:16:47] Darren Absolutely. And on the wide-body fleet, the Premium Plus product, which is our premium economy product, offers an elevated experience, but really at a more accessible buy-up then going all the way up to a lie-flat, all-access business-class seat. So, it’s all about offering customers more choices. And to your point, the customer’s preferences will vary from trip to trip. But we’ve seen a lot of interest from leisure customers in trading up to a premium cabin. So, that’s been great to see.  

[00:17:15] Sally I wanted to chat a little bit about efficiencies and flying, leads me to a question around sustainability. So, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a very large trend of travellers wanting to purchase and make more sustainable choices when they’re travelling across the industry. Brandon even educated us on the IndyCar race drivers becoming more sustainable. So, it’s everywhere. Now, United has a really robust goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. So, congratulations on making that goal. How do you see this impacting how you are designing and managing flight schedules, but also marketing and helping the consumer to know how to make a choice that’s more sustainable or creating awareness? So you made a sustainable choice and that’s great for you.  

[00:18:00] Darren Yeah. Sustainability is a very real issue and a key focus for United and for our CEO, Scott Kirby. It’s something he’s personally very passionate about. And it’s illustrated by not only our commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 100 percent by 2050, but also our investments in sustainable aviation fuel and carbon sequestration, which are more durable, tangible and scalable solutions than carbon offsets, which traditionally have been used to illustrate a commitment to sustainability. But the exciting thing is, given our route network is focused on meeting customer needs, it’s going to adapt as customers think about taking more meaningful, longer trips to more sustainable destinations. So, a good example of some places that are resonating with our customers: our new service to Bergen in Norway. This is a country that is recognised as a world leader in sustainable transportation. It was interesting to learn when I was there that over 70 percent of the cars in Norway are electrified, and even some of the fjord sightseeing boats are powered by electricity. The Azores is the first archipelago in the world to be certified as a sustainable tourism region.  

[00:19:12] Sally I think it’s really powerful how you talked about: ‘I fly, it’s important for United to be sustainable, and then I’m going to a destination that embraces sustainability as well’. Do you partner with any of the destination management organisations, or CVBs, when planning or marketing or launching to, kind of tell that full story of either sustainability, or another message that’s important to you?  

[00:19:34] Darren Absolutely. I mean, as we grow our network to more destinations, we partner with the destination marketing organisations and local governments to jointly build awareness and showcase these curated iconic destinations that we’ve added to our network. We want our new service to be destinations to grow the pie with easier access. Like when it’s your first transatlantic service to Majorca or the Canary Islands, for example. We’ve also been very focused on the interdependency between what United’s offering in terms of a travel experience and the overall experience in the destination. So, lodging is a big component of a customer’s travel decision. So, the broad selection and rich content of launching options on Expedia, for example, can help bring a destination to life and, ultimately, convert a customer into travelling to a destination that United is serving. So, we’re really a piece of a puzzle that’s very important, but we need a destination and a product to close the deal for the customer.  

[00:20:36] Sally And is there anything that either lodging partners, car partners, attraction partners, whatever it might be, should be thinking about or doing in partnership with either new routes, additional routes? Just making sure that they’re connecting and being a viable or, you know, successful offering to travellers coming into a destination? 

[00:20:57] Darren Yeah, I mean, travellers have a lot of choice about where to go. And I think, the more destinations and the lodging, and other providers in the destination, can show what makes this destination unique and special. Why should I get on a plane for seven hours to go and visit the Canary Islands if there are other options that are closer to home? And I think the thing that’s happened with Covid is, lots of people are interested in visiting major world capitals and key destinations, but there’s also interest in taking more meaningful, more unique trips to something different. And I think, the better we can showcase these unique destinations to customers, the more successfully we can develop these markets.  

[00:21:38] Brandon Alright. I want you to take off the United hat and put on the ‘Darren Scott I’m a traveller’ hat. And I’m going to do some rapid-fire questions as they pertain to air travel and travel in general. You can always pass or not answer. First question: aisle or a window?  

[00:21:54] Darren Aisle.  

[00:21:55] Brandon What is the best beach destination uou have been to?  

[00:21:58] Darren I’ve been to so many. I would say that the green-sand beach on the big island of Hawaii, which is one of the most southern points in the United States, just because you have to hike from the parking lot to get there. So, there’s effort involved and it’s incredibly unique.  

[00:22:11] Brandon Effort usually reduces the crowds. I’m all for it. What is the most annoying part of travel?  

[00:22:18] Darren The uncertainty.  

[00:22:21] Brandon You’re sitting on the plane. Someone sits next to you. Do you prefer silence, light conversation and then back to what you’re doing or do you want to meet someone new on the plane?  

[00:22:30] Darren I think, light conversation is perfect.  

[00:22:32] Brandon Last question. As an air traveller, what is one way that you think an air traveller can help themselves out throughout this experience? Whether that be, like, understanding how the app works, how to figure out where the plane’s coming from. But what’s one thing a traveller can do?  

[00:22:48] Darren Be prepared for the unexpected, but also leverage the app, so you have as much information as possible to make an informed decision.  

[00:22:56] Sally We talked a lot about the in-flight experience and, I have two questions, but the first is more fun. What is your favourite in-flight experience that you have had? You talked about going to Glacier National Park. That’s amazing. But is there just a time in the air where you had an incredible time?  

[00:23:14] Darren Yeah. I mean, I would say that being able to fly on a long-haul flight in a premium cabin and arrive well rested is always the best possible flight.  

[00:23:26] Sally And when you talk about those in-flight experiences and you look at loyalty and guest experience and partnerships, I noticed that you recently partnered with Away Luggage, which is a lifestyle luggage brand for some of your amenity kits and your longer-haul flights. How do you look at partnerships that might be important to travellers today, or pick the right partnerships to enhance that in-flight experience?

[00:23:50] Darren Yeah, I mean, I really think it’s important that partners are aligned with the values of United and the United brand and the United customer and offering an elevated amenity kit that showcases a brand that’s relevant to our customers or really helps make the experience different. And a lot of travellers in our premium cabins travel frequently. So giving them something different and providing a new amenity kit that they can keep and it can be useful after their trip. It also ties into sustainability and giving the customer something they value.

[00:24:18] Sally And something they can share with their friends. Look what I’ve got. Or maybe they keep it with them when they travel now. It just builds that curiosity and interest for maybe customers who haven’t done that or haven’t had that experience. I love that.

[00:24:29] Brandon Looking ahead, what is United doing to promote travel and places it hasn’t been to? And how is United going to stay ahead of its competitors going forward?

[00:24:40] Darren So, it’s going to be really important that we continue staying close to the customer and ensure that we’re delivering on their expectations. And as we learned during COVID, being nimble and ready as their needs evolve. We want to continue curating new choices for our customers to provide easier destinations, easier access to new and different destinations, and also work with our partners in the trade to showcase this growth.

[00:25:04] Sally So you kind of answered it there. But the last question, what do you see as the next big trend powering travel?

[00:25:13] Darren So, I would say customers being able to sort through all of the choices that they have in a clearer way. Because I think the challenge we have now of all of these tools and all of this information is just content overload for potential travellers. That’s why United can bring destinations into the network that researching the holistic trip and thinking about travel holistically is something that I think over time there will be better and better tools to help customers do that.

[00:25:48] Sally If there are a lot of options out there and some people, it’s about the time they leave, some people might be sustainability, some people price. I mean, there’s a lot of information.

[00:25:58] Brandon There is so much information, like if you know what you’re looking at, you can actually look at the inventory fare buckets and like see or try to predict how close you are to letting one of your upgrade certificates clear. And I think that’s something to me, United has almost gamified it in a way, because obviously I have a background in revenue management. We talked about my woes as a management analyst at United in episode one. But one of the things I always do is look at the fare class and it will help me to determine like, am I getting a good deal? Am I getting a great deal? Like, do I want to wait? Do I want to try and apply an upgrade certificate? And I just think that abundance of information for the traveller, whether it’s the fare class, whether it’s letting me know where my plane that’s coming to pick me up is, that is so helpful and just feeling like you’re more in control. Because based on my interactions with people in the airport, a lot of people are not in control. And I think United has done a great job of saying, if you want to be in control and you want to understand what’s happening, we’re going to make it easier for you. And I just wanted to give you guys some recognition. It’s a fantastic app. It makes travel easier.

[00:27:07] Darren Yeah, that’s fantastic. And I’m glad to have talked about what we’re doing. And we’ll just continue to be focused on making travel easier for the customer and giving them more relevant and exciting content.

[00:27:19] Sally We know there’s a lot of folks that might travel for business and acquire quite a bit of status over time, and they’re unlocking upgrades and enhanced experience. But then, there’s also travellers that might take 2 to 3 trips a year and that experience seems out of reach. So, how do you build loyalty in all those facets of the traveller to make sure people feel the value?

[00:27:42] Darren Yeah, our loyalty team is very focused on making the MileagePlus programme as flexible and transparent as possible, and giving customers options to elevate their travel experience in different ways. For example, our PlusPoints certificates that our elite members get can be used on different types of travel—meant to upgrade to different types of cabins—and then you get the certificates back if you’re not cleared. There’s really a lot of flexibility in how they’re used. And it’s all about removing friction from the experience and allowing customers to pick their own, customise how they want their experience to be.

[00:28:20] Brandon I think one of the nice things about PlusPoints in this concept is also that you can gift them. You know, if you have a friend who’s travelling to see you or a friend’s travelling to the United States, they’re going to be on a long-haul from Sydney, like, you can actually apply your PlusPoints to their ticket itinerary. And it’s a great surprise and a great way to make sure those are used. If you’re a frequent traveller, sometimes you don’t have a trip booked and you’re not going to have a use for those. And being able to apply it to someone else’s itinerary is just a great way to again, continue to improve the travel experience.

[00:28:50] Sally So, that’s a perfect segue for us to wrap up today’s conversation with a few fun questions. Putting your traveller hat back on. So, what is the one item that you absolutely cannot travel without?

[00:29:02] Darren I would say that is my iPhone because it’s my camera, my notebook, my reading materials, all in one place. And it doesn’t really do any of those things really well, but it does everything and it’s one device

[00:29:15] Sally That’s key. I think I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have my phone, so absolutely. What’s the most memorable trip you’ve ever taken? This might be hard for you because something tells me you’ve travelled quite a bit.

[00:29:28] Darren I certainly have. I have travelled quite a bit. But one of my most memorable trips was the first trip I took as an employee of United. I headed to Montana to Glacier National Park, right after we had launched a new flight from Chicago. And it was in early summer. So, got to see the wildflowers, the mountain air, the scenery... and it was a highly memorable experience in nature.

[00:29:52] Sally So, I had some great takeaways today. Really interesting to get this behind-the-scenes look at the airline industry, and how other travel leaders can stay plugged into this type of information. At Expedia, we have this saying that, if the traveller wins, we all win. And what I love is that I heard so much of that from Darren today. On how United is thinking about making things simple and easy for the traveller, whether it be the Travel-Ready Center or helping you navigate a busy airport with time, holding a connection, even potentially. And that just aligns so well that when we put our travellers first, really great things happen. And I just love to see other companies looking at it in the same way.  

[00:30:34] Brandon It is great to see United Airlines really reducing that friction that’s in travel, but also creating great experiences. And that’s something that we’re focused on at Expedia Group as well. You know, we have the new One Key loyalty programme that we’re going to allow our partners to engage with travellers, really to attract those high-value travellers for the business, the ones that, you know, stay longer, spend more on property. And if you take friction out of the equation, you really allow the partner to shine to create the great experience. And it’s good to see that United Airlines and Expedia Group are aligned in our mission: putting the traveller first. As Sally said, if the traveller wins, we all win. And this was the conversation that really cemented that for me with the airline side of the business.  

[00:31:15] Sally So, Brandon, before we go, I’m kind of dying to know: you worked for United for a long time. I know you’re up in the air quite a lot. What is your favourite United in-flight meal?  

[00:31:26] Brandon This is a great question. And I’m going to answer it quickly and easily because I had it last night. There is a new—this is going to blow your mind, Sally—we’ve progressed from the dark ages of airline food. Airline food is great. Last night, on a United flight home from Seattle, I had a barbecue bacon cheeseburger. Which, like, what? You know, normally it’s, like, some chicken or some, you know, orzo salad. I was able to have a smoky barbecue bacon cheeseburger with blue cheese and chopped onions, and it tasted like I was at a restaurant. It was fantastic.  

[00:32:00] Sally I love it. What do you pair with that, though? What was the beverage of choice?  

[00:32:04] Brandon You know, I was lame. I was working. I had a Coke Zero. I really let you down there. I’m sure you were hoping, like, ‘Oh yes, I had a lovely Michelob ULTRA’, but no, I had a Coke Zero and a water’.  

[00:32:15] Sally I’m glad you were working, Brandon. That’s the most important thing, right? Get those hours in. 

[00:32:19] Brandon Indeed. I was preparing for this podcast. It’s amazing, Sally. We are at the end of the season, almost. We’ve got one final episode. It’s coming in two weeks. We’re really excited about it. We’ve got a couple of surprises, and I can’t wait to share it with you all. So, stay tuned. This is Powering Travel by Expedia Group.  

[00:32:40] Sally We hope you enjoy this episode of Powering Travel. We want to hear from you. So, connect with us at poweringtravel@expediagroup.com. Subscribe to get notified when new episodes are live, and be sure to rate and review the show. A huge thank you to everyone Powering Travel. Thanks for listening.  

Meet your hosts

Sally and Brandon love keeping up with the latest news in travel. They’re on a mission to interview experts across the industry about what’s trending—and they can’t wait to share what they learn with you. 

Sally Smith

Expedia Group Senior Director of Market Management

Sally launched her career in 2005 with Starwood Hotels & Resorts and joined Expedia in 2012, where she’s earned a decade of experience in hotel revenue management and sales strategy. Sally’s passionate about travel—and about the potential of technology to benefit the industry. She lives in Lake Tahoe, CA, with her husband and their two young children.


Brandon Ehrhardt

Expedia Group Senior Director of Partner Programmes

Brandon spent the early days of his career designing revenue management strategies for United Airlines and currently heads up our platform loyalty programme. Whilst at Expedia Group, Brandon has played an integral role in scaling our loyalty programme, launching research projects and leading strategic initiatives. Brandon currently resides in Chicago, IL, with his wife and a rambunctious toddler.

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