United Airlines takes aim at Southwest in Denver ad campaign

United Airlines welcomes competition in the industry. It pushes the company to be better for customers, executives say.

When it comes to competing for flyers out of Denver, United isn’t playing nice this spring as a new advertising campaign that gets underway Monday demonstrates.

In a series of ads shared with The Denver Post last week ahead of their widespread release, United highlights its network, capabilities and ties to the Mile High City. It also takes shots at Southwest Airlines, the second-largest operator at Denver International Airport.

“United: Nonstop to Hawaii’s beaches. Southwest: Some stops to Hawaii’s beaches,” reads one ad with a picture of the tail of a United plane in front of DIA’s tented terminal building. In smaller print, the airline includes the Denver-focused tagline “Accept nothing less than Mile High Standards.”

The ad draws a distinction between United’s service out of DIA and Southwest’s network which connects flyers with Hawaii out of cities in California. A similar ad jabs at Southwest connecting flyers to Cozumel, Mexico, out of Houston while United flies direct out of Denver.

“We want to challenge some of the assumptions that customers may have perceived about United vs. Southwest,” United senior vice president Janet Lamkin said last week. “We wanted to make sure that people had the real facts about what we provide and the scale of our operations and the choices we provide.”

United and Southwest have shared runways at DIA for 15 years. They’re both growing with the airport.

Last February, then United CEO Oscar Munoz held a press event on Concourse B ceremonially signing a lease for 24 new gates being built as part of DIA’s $1.5 billion expansion. That deal will eventually give the Chicago-based airline 90 total gates in Denver.

With much less fanfare, Southwest signed a lease for 16 new gates last year, giving it rights to 40 total when the expansion work is done.

The COVID-19 pandemic was devastating for the airline industry, driving both United and Southwest to furlough hundreds of workers at DIA. The airport itself saw its lowest traveler traffic since 1996, serving 51% fewer people than it did in 2019.

Still, representatives from both airlines praised Denver as a bright spot in dark times.

In December, Southwest senior vice president Jason Van Eaton said DIA was the airline’s No. 1 airport for departures, with more than 250 per day as of that month. The airline is building a $100 maintenance hangar at the airport.

Lamkin said Denver is United’s fastest-growing hub.

“Denver is incredibly important to us because it’s important to our customers,” she said.

United is taking the new aggressive stance with its advertising as leisure travel demand picks up amid mass vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus. The campaign will run through the summer, taking shape on social media, displays at DIA and downtown, wraps on RTD trains and via music streaming service Spotify. There will even be a custom playlist, United officials said.

Not every element of the new campaign is focused on competition. Some pieces also seek to highlight United’s connection to Denver including the fact that its flight training center, part of the former Stapleton Airport, serves more than 10,000 pilots.

After shrinking its workforce of more than 7,000 in Denver, United has brought back a number of furloughed workers and is hiring again. It now has about 6,500 workers in the city, according to Lamkin.

“We’re really proud of how we adding to the economic recovery of the state with our growth in Denver,” she said.

United operated more than 85,000 flights in and out of DIA last year, airport officials say. Regional partner airlines like Sky West and United Express added another 118,000. Southwest, meanwhile, flew 119,115 flights in and out of Denver.

This story will be updated.

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