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Continental Airlines veteran Dave Hilfman this summer was named senior vice president of worldwide sales for the new United Airlines, a role he assumed in October following the close of the United-Continental merger. Hilfman spoke last week with The Transnationalabout combining the two sales forces, integrating corporate contracts and working with antitrust-immune joint-venture partners. An excerpt of that conversation follows.
What's been done with the structure of the corporate sales organization since the closing of the merger?
We still have two airlines with two separate operating certificates. We have the senior sales leadership named. We're now in the interviewing and talent selection process for the next layer of our senior sales leadership. That's essentially our managing directors throughout the organization. We're hopeful to have that completed worldwide essentially by the first week in December. Once we name that group, then we'll go through and name the next group, our directors, and then right on down. The hope is that we finish out what you would call our sales leadership by the end of the year. It will take probably a couple of months to get from the leadership levels all the way down to our frontline sales professionals, so let's just say it will be mid-first quarter, maybe even the end of the first quarter 2011. We hope to be essentially one single sales force representing the new United--though you do still have two airlines until you get that single operating certificate. We hope to have one voice in the market within the first quarter of 2011.
How long before you transition corporate contracts over to the new United?
Corporate contracts are pretty complex. Both carriers always looked at very customized programs for our largest corporate buyers, which is what they prefer. We want to move as quickly as we can to simplify our contracts and provide the most value to our key corporate buyers, but we're going to do that very thoughtfully, and I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. I have to make sure these deals work for both our corporate buyers and for the new United. We're only going to do it as we get the proper analysis done and can present the best case going forward to all of our key corporate buyers. I can't really give you a timeline apart from "as quickly as we can." Our goal is to be easy to do business with. That doesn't mean we always say yes, but it means we always try to find a way to come up with a great solution. That means we get more revenue in the door, and in exchange for sending us more revenue and market share, we have provided our clients a great opportunity to save on their overall travel program. We'd love to be expeditious, but you want to make sure you get things right. For that first impression with the new company, we want to be sure we have the right program.
You had already been working with United on transatlantic joint-venture deals. Did that inform how you would work together as a merged carrier?
It was enormously helpful. We got a little bit of a head start working with our colleagues at United. Of course, it was for the Atlantic joint venture, which includes Lufthansa and Air Canada, but also in the Star Alliance; we were already interacting a lot with our United sales colleagues. Where we were allowed, we could actually have conversations, and those continue on, even before we've done anything on integrating the rest of our sales contracts in the rest of the world. We had an opportunity to look at how to integrate programs, and it was a great head start. We learned a lot from each other about what works and what doesn't work, and how we can get better. It would have been different if on day one we were merged but never worked together and had always been brutal competitors.
Looking just at the transatlantic joint venture, how far along are corporate contracting initiatives?
We've made significant progress on that. A material number of agreements have been converted on the Atlantic to joint-venture deals. We still have a long way to go. There's still plenty of our top 200 targets, and between all the carriers, we have well in excess of a couple thousand agreements that we are targeting among the largest corporate volume buyers out there. We're seeing the benefits of those agreements already, as are these buyers. We know that adding in the transborder [with Air Canada] and the Pacific [with All Nippon], it's a little more complex, but the rewards are significant for all involved.
How long before you can ramp up your transpacific joint venture with All Nippon and transborder Air Canada joint venture?
They're all high-priority. We have a lot of smart people that are finding ways to integrate as quickly as we can into our agreements. There's still a lot of work to be done, because the Pacific was just approved. The same goes for the transborder. You'll start to see a lot of that make its way into the marketplace as we get into 2011. It just takes a little time. Much like the evaluation of all of our corporate deals, you need to make sure that you get the right data, that you're looking at the right kind of agreements. You have to know that you'll have time to negotiate with your clients. They need to be able to understand the benefits these deals bring to them.
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