Lufthansa-United CEO chats focus on passengers

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Passengers will be front and centre when Lufthansa German Airlines chief executive Carsten Spohr and United Airlines chief executive Jeff Smisek chat at the IATA Annual General Meeting.

"We talk about our customers mainly," says Spohr in an interview in Frankfurt shortly before he departed for the conference in Cape Town on 31 May. "What our customers expect from us, where we don't yet meet [our] customer requirements and where we are meeting them."

The two Star Alliance members have been partners since at least 1997 and have a metal neutral trans-Atlantic joint venture where they share all revenues along with Air Canada.

Spohr says that the two airline chief executives are also likely to discuss industry politics, including emissions trading and aircraft.

"In the non-consolidated industry that we are in, we are two of the biggest players getting together," he says. "We are definitely a force in this industry, so we talk about politics and aircraft but we really try to approach this whole thing from the customer point of view."

The executives will be able to swap notes on Airbus and Boeing's latest widebodies. Lufthansa is evaluating the Airbus A350, Boeing 787-9 and -10, and the Boeing 777-8X and -9X for an order that is expected to include more than 50 widebody aircraft before the end of the year, while United is looking at the same aircraft for a possible future order.

"The 787-10 is a great airplane," Ron Baur, vice-president of fleet at Chicago-based United, told Flightglobal in May. "It's a simple stretch [of the 787-8] and we're big advocates of simple stretches."

The airline has orders for 25 A350-900s.

Another topic that Spohr and Smisek are likely to discuss - if they have not already - is the quality of United's operations and service. A senior manager at Lufthansa says that the carrier agrees with public opinion that service on United has declined since its integration with Continental last year. They note though that this has not impacted the relationship between the two carriers.

United executives have publicly acknowledged operational and service quality issues numerous times during the past year. The airline is focused on improving both metrics this year as it hopes to recapture some of the corporate travel that it lost as a result.

Note: An earlier version of this article attributed the quotes to Christoph Franz, chief executive of Lufthansa Group.