Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can United be fixed?

That's the question asked by Christopher Elliott of Frommer's in an article running on

Can United Airlines Fix Itself? Christopher Elliott,

I recently spent a day touring the company's new headquarters in Chicago, visiting with managers and executives who oversee customer service initiatives. Most of the meetings began with an apology and a promise: "We can do better."

But can it? Can United, still wobbly after a difficult merger with Continental Airlines, right itself?

The article itself is inconclusive. You get the feeling that Elliott liked the United executives that he spoke with but didn't exactly buy their lines.

Here's one example of why I think United has a long, tough road ahead of it:

I came away with a sense that United's managers in downtown Chicago are as exasperated as the customers who complain about the airline's substandard performance, but for different reasons. If we passengers could only appreciate the complexity of running an airline, they say, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to judge. If we could understand how difficult it is to merge two large airlines, we'd give them a break.
If that's the prevailing attitude at United corporate offices, then no, it's highly unlikely that United IS going to fix itself, at least without massive changes in the executive suites.

As a United customer, I'm reminded of the Al Pacino line in Ocean's 13: "Don't tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby."  The problems, for the most part, in this case are not the customer. Sure there are a few people who wouldn't be happy if you set them down in exclusive class and had attractive 20-something massage therapists rubbing them down all flight with massage oil flown in from exotic locales that was handled by nothing but soft-handed virgins but, they're the exception.  Most people just want their plane to depart/arrive on time.  Business travellers need to make meetings and vacationers don't want to have to sweat the flight, they want to enjoy their time off.  Yes you're going to have people who are mad because you didn't treat them like the Maharajah of Suburbia and that's OK.  Those are the people the rest of us laugh at while they gripe that UA doesn't serve Krug in lead crystal.  They're also the people that swirl wine in a plastic wine cup so it's quite possible they could not be 100% right in the head.  Let's ignore them, focus on the rest of us.

Here's where United's failing:  Instead of telling us how hard things are, admit they're hard by hiring better and more customer service and fix the things that are wrong when the hard stuff pops up.  I'm probably going to be more understanding about a flight delay if the gate agent honestly and frequently updates me on the status and reason.  If the delay gets excessive I'm likely to be OK if customer service would consider waiving the re-booking fee as a convenience.  If I call (or e-mail) into customer service I'd like to get an answer before it's time to upgrade my cell-phone plan.  Also this: Smiles are nice.  I may have the dumbest question in the world but don't roll your eyes at me.  Not everyone is the fount of flying knowledge that you are Gatey.

This brings us to fees.

No one, except the airlines, are ever going to be happy with fees.  Eventually they will be tolerated, and someday they will become commonplace, but no one is ever going to like them.  The fee storm is going to have to be ridden out by the airlines because the genie is out of the bottle and there's no stuffing it back inside.  It might be wise for United to consider putting the brakes on any fee increases for a while however, because right now their customers tolerance levels are at all time lows, and an increase of a fee for worse service is hard to justify from a company who's CEO smiles on every flight and talks to customers about "changes we think you're gonna like."  Reactions that I've heard to Smiling Jeff's safety video introduction have ranged from audible boos to "I'd like to punch him in the face. I wonder if he'd like that change."  As a side note, Smisek is not a popular guy right now, it might be a good idea to hire a spokesperson.

Finally, there's this from the article:

And will the improvements be enough, or will they just affect a chosen few super-elites in the front of the plane?
This, to me, is a big worry, because everything that Smiling Jeff has mentioned has been about improving the business and first class hard products.  This tells me that they're OK with what's going on in economy or, more likely, that they really don't care.  I've never been one to begrudge First and Business Class fliers special privileges.  I believe that if you pay for those seats, or are upgraded to them, that you should expect a higher level of comfort and service, both in the airport and on the plane.  What I don't think is that the economy product should be ignored.  It seems, right now, that United is doing precisely that.  Considering the largest number of customers are going to be wedged into the sardine can in the back, you could at least make sure the cattle is treated humanely.

It also wouldn't hurt United to offer up a genuine dose of "we're really sorry" to the general public.  Then they're going to have to work to bring people back, each and every day, each and every flight.  I don't see that kind of effort happening until some sort of labor peace is obtained.

So, to answer the question at the beginning of this post: Can United be fixed?

I say yes, of course it can be fixed.  The real question in my mind is whether or not it can be fixed in time to matter, or can it be fixed by the current executive team?

Based on what I'm seeing and reading that answer is closer to no than yes.

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