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Zagat Airline Survey Reveals Challenge for the New United

I'm generally not a fan of "best of" airline surveys, because people don't generally act as they say they will. That being said, there can sometimes be nuggets of goodness that stand out in surveys, and that's exactly the case in this year's Zagat Airline Survey. The low rankings for United (UAL) and high rankings for Continental show exactly what the merged airline is up against.

Zagat just released the survey results from its annual poll of frequent fliers. More than 8,000 people surveyed, about two-thirds of them male. The average respondent took more than 17 flights last year. Thirty percent were at least 60 years old, but only four percent were below 30. In other words, it's your usual frequent flier profile, possibly skewed a bit to the older side.

Looking through all the results, it's a lot of what you'd expect. Southwest Airlines was rated best value among domestic airlines, and JetBlue was named the best airline for economy class, followed by Southwest, Continental, AirTran and Delta.

But the comparison between Continental and United is striking. Take a look.

Continental soundly trounced United in every category. You would think that United would excel at comfort since it has Economy Plus with more legroom, but it didn't. In fact, it even fared worse than AirTran and it's knee-crunching legroom.

On the premium side, the results were the same. In terms of comfort, United should be doing fairly well, but it isn't. This is the challenge that the new combined airline faces.

Continental is well-regarded across the board, at least when compared to other US-based airlines, but United is not. This may seem counterintuitive in some categories, and many will simply shrug off the results. They shouldn't.

This shows how Continental has been able to create a halo around its brand while United simply has not. You can make the product as good as you want, but if the perception isn't there, it's going to hurt results.

So this is the challenge for the new United. How do you merge the offerings to keep the perception that you have a superior product, as Continental does today? It's going to require a focus on customer service. Employee engagement will be important along the way. Clearly just having a better product isn't going to cut it, though that's important as well.

This needs to be at the top of mind in every product discussion throughout the integration. I would certainly be watching the numbers going forward if I were United. It could be a good indicator of how well the culture is transferring.