United Airlines joins other carriers in peddling credit cards to passengers

Flight attendant Tonya Johnson walks along the aisles of United Airlines' 787 Dreamliner at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. United flight attendants will begin Sept. 1 to pitch passengers on a co-branded credit card.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

If you hate unsolicited sales pitches, your next flight on United Airlines might be a bit irksome.

The Chicago-based airline is requiring its flight attendants beginning Sept. 1 to pitch passengers on every domestic and international flight to sign up for a co-branded credit card to boost revenue.

In the past, flight attendants had the option of pitching the credit cards and were rewarded with financial incentives for every passenger who signed up. The sales pitches, however, are now required.


“We are introducing a new training program for our co-branded credit card that is especially designed for flight attendants, as this work group has the most engagement with our customers,” the airline said in a statement. “Our inflight crew are effective ambassadors, who can best communicate to our customers in the moment the benefits of the United Explorer card.”

Flight attendants on American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, also hawk credit cards during flights, but such sales pitches are optional.

The motivation? Money.

The nation’s biggest carriers collected $24.6 billion last year from all revenue outside of airfares, including the revenue from the sales of loyalty reward points to credit card companies.

Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks Co., a consultant on boosting airline revenue, said co-branded credit cards make money for airlines when the banks that manage the cards buy from loyalty reward miles to reward card users for reaching spending thresholds.

In addition, card users who book a flight on the airline may get special extras such as early check-in or free checked luggage, all of which the banks buy from the airlines, he said.

“It’s worth multiple billions of dollars for the big three major airlines,” Sorensen said, referring to American, Delta and United Airlines.

In its most recent earnings report, United Airlines reported net income of $147 million for the quarter that ended March 31, an increase of $48 million over the same period in 2017.

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