United’s Super Bowl ad takes subtle dig at Southwest’s Denver troubles

Coloradans watching Sunday’s Super Bowl game will see a brief replay of the air travel meltdown that wreaked havoc at Denver International Airport and across much of the country around Christmas.

United Airlines, DIA’s No. 1 carrier, is using the 30-second spot to highlight its performance in a way that takes a subtle dig at its No. 2 rival in Denver, without naming Southwest Airlines.

For a full week during one of the year’s busiest travel periods, Southwest canceled hundreds of flights a day into and out of DIA, often more than half its daily schedule. For most of that period, United had a relative handful of cancellations, at least on its mainline flights.

The United ad shows video of an unidentified family from Denver gathering together, and the on-screen text says: “United got more families in and out of Denver this holiday than any other airline. Despite the weather.”

United says the ad will air once each in the Denver and Colorado Springs TV markets during Sunday’s NFL championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. A spokesman declined to say how much the airline paid for the spots, but they were among Super Bowl ad slots purchased in five U.S. markets late last year with the intention of airing a more generic United ad.

United opted to customize the Colorado ads, seizing on December’s travel woes by a major competitor.

While most large airlines were affected by a sub-zero winter storm that hit Denver and much of the country in the days before Christmas, many of them began to recover quickly, including United. But Southwest ended up canceling 15,000 flights nationally as it struggled to restore an outdated flight crew scheduling system and overcome other operational failures — resulting in a public relations disaster that has cost Southwest more than $1 billion.

During a media call Tuesday, Josh Earnest, a United senior vice president and its chief communications officer, and Matt Miller, vice president of United’s Denver hub, pointed to system upgrades, a pandemic hiring spree and measures United has put in place, including backup staffing and spare aircraft, to make it more resilient during bad winter weather.

“It’s not just about our biggest competitor here in Denver — it’s about a handful of airlines, the so-called low-cost carriers, that have chosen to not make these kinds of investments that do have a disproportionate impact on their operational performance and on the setbacks that their customers have to endure,” Earnest said.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said Tuesday that it was impossible to comment on United’s ad without seeing it, but he wrote in an email: “I’ll just offer that Southwest has demonstrated a 51-year history of serving customers well by operating one of the world’s most admired airlines.”

Earnest highlighted figures that showed more than 27% of Southwest’s scheduled seats on flights out of Denver were canceled between Dec. 18 and Jan. 5, compared with 5.5% of United’s scheduled seats. Throughout January, as a series of snowstorms hit, Southwest canceled more than 5% of scheduled seats, compared to about 2% for United.

During the holiday period, United also performed better on cancellations in Denver than Alaska, Spirit and Frontier airlines, according to the airline’s figures.

Notably, United Express flights, which are operated by regional partners including SkyWest Airlines using smaller jets, have been much more vulnerable to weather-related cancellations than United mainline flights. Earnest said the figures he cited for United included those regional flights.

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