APEX in Profile: Maria Walter


Maria Walter
Managing Director, Product and Brand Strategy
United Airlines

Maria is a global marketing and merchandising expert who has been connecting people and products through technology for more than a decade. As managing director of Product and Brand Strategy, she cultivates new partnerships like illy coffee and Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. Her innovative focus on United’s customer experience is bringing exciting new products like United Polaris business class to the friendly skies.

Location: ORD
Frequent flight: ORD-EWR
Now watching: Orange Is the New Black
The future of flight will be: Personalized
Favorite aircraft: B747
Paper or electronic boarding pass: Electronic
City you’d like to visit: Rome

What is the most overlooked aspect of the aircraft cabin?
From the consumer point of view, airlines tend to put a lot of effort into seating products and the overall interior look and feel, but there are times when you’ll do a seating refresh, but not necessarily have all the lavatories be refreshed at the same time. Every customer sees the lavatory, whether you’re in the premium cabins or the economy cabins, and it’s something that can start to look dated over time. So I think that that’s a place where all airlines really need to try to keep up.

When you feel like someone is anticipating your needs and absolutely delivering on what you need in that given moment, that really adds to comfort on board.

When it comes to onboard comfort, what do you think is most important?
I think that the seat products are obviously something that is top of mind for every single flyer, and something that every airline is thinking about, down to the materials used on the seat covers to the composition of the cushioning and all those kinds of details. But I think comfort comes a lot from the level of service that’s provided and the care that you get from the in-flight crew. That’s something that can really set the stage for having a wonderful experience. When you feel like someone is anticipating your needs and absolutely delivering on what you need in that given moment, that really adds to comfort on board.

I have to say, I look at customer satisfaction scores all the time and we certainly get graded on seat comfort, but when you have all the other pieces working right – that’s what really drives overall satisfaction. You could have the most comfortable seat in the world, but if somebody is rude to you, that sticks with you and affects your overall perception of the flight.

How can airlines design for brand?
That’s something that United is very focused on right now. It’s interesting as you go through a merger, when you’re trying to bring together two different airline brand personalities, it really makes you look at everything large and small. We’ve done a ton of work at having the overall design system refreshed, and everything has been crafted with that in mind.

We’re making a lot of updates to aircraft interiors, such as the B777-300ER and the new Polaris seat experience, but we’re also bringing those same design cues into the airport environment with redesigned United Clubs, new podiums and refreshed hold room spaces. Everything down to the salt and pepper shakers and the cocktail napkins on board are being redesigned with those elements in mind. From a consumer point of view, people may never realize small details like the shadow of the arc of the globe of United’s logo, but when you put all of the pieces together, it feels right, it feels thoughtful, and it changes your perception of the brand. It helps the brand feel modern, innovative, and is a brand that you feel happy with and that you’d want to visit again.

It’s a daunting task when you start to look at all the things that should be working together, but once you start to see them coming together, it’s really exciting to see the impact.

Did you choose the airline industry or did it choose you?
I would say that I chose the airline industry. It was my first job out of college; I’ve been at United for 17 years now. There were a variety of companies recruiting on my campus and I just fell in love with United and the idea of being able to travel the world and see all of the different cultures and experiences.

Every job has a cool factor. What’s yours?
I absolutely love being able to directly affect the customer experience and really put myself in the passenger’s shoes. My job is really cool because it touches everything from in-flight entertainment content and being able to work with Hollywood studios to many other things. We actually just worked with Tribeca Digital Studios to create content for United exclusively and produce a documentary called Destination: Team USA. It was flying exclusively on United leading up to and during the Olympic Games and we expanded it to Netflix. We’re really excited to have exclusive content that’s created by an airline. It’s a tearjerker, though. I won’t lie!

If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you be doing?
I think my husband and I would be running a restaurant in my hometown. I love to cook, and my in-laws actually own a craft distillery, so being able to play with spirits and food pairings, that would just be amazing for us. It’s a bourbon distillery, so anything that’s kind of like comfort food, peach-bourbon or barbecue bourbon-glazed. My husband is amazing on the smoker.

Two things that you miss most about home when you’re traveling?
Of course my little children! I’m a mom of two: I’ve got an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, so family time is definitely something I wish I had more of sometimes. I also miss my cat. I should probably also say my husband’s cooking and having a home-cooked meal. You always eat all the stuff you shouldn’t when you’re on the road.

What’s the one item that you can’t travel without?
My phone charger. I think I have to plug it in three times a day.

Your top three movies of all time?
Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption and The Wizard of Oz.

If you could sit next to anyone on a plane, who would it be?
Stephen Colbert. I love him. I think he is so witty and funny, and he would just be a hoot to sit next to.