The United Airlines Customer Service Debacle

The Shocking Back Story

This past week’s shocking customer service blunder at United Airlines was yet another example of an employee culture so disengaged that we end up dragging a semi-conscious passenger in front of the world. The UA “culture” is so disengaged that incidents like this happen routinely. This morning, I spoke with a former commercial pilot who witnessed a passenger without legs drag himself through the snow to make his next flight. Dispatch repeatedly didn’t listen to the severity of the customer need. UA isn’t alone, the trance of employee disengagement impacts all of us every single day.

Current industry practice allows customers to get “bumped” to accommodate employee needs. While this could be a good time to question the practice, here is how an engaged team would have handled the situation: The gate agent would have known of the staffing need in advance. The four most recently booked passengers would have never made it onto the plane. That agent would have been given the responsibility to do anything to make those four customers as OK as possible. If all passengers had boarded, the needed employees would have been placed on a bus.

In my upcoming book The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press, available August), United Airlines is featured as an organizational culture destroyed by one of the most disengaged CEOs to every get the reigns to a major company.

Here is the previously published blog:

In 2015, a sizeable group of past and current United Airlines employees signed a petition filed by demanding the resignation of United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek. It called Smisek out for cutting costs at the expense of services and taking steps that damage retirees – all actions the group claims to be contrary to Smisek’s sworn testimony before Congress when he said the 2010 merger between Continental and United would have no “significant” effect on employment on frontline jobs.

At a previous United Airlines Investor Day Conference, Smisek made a rather jaw-dropping statement:

“I think you’ll like the changes you see, as we aim to not fall in the last place.”

At the time, United’s customer service satisfaction ratings were in the mid-twenty percentile. He posted a new target in the employee cafeterias that he wanted everyone to aspire to hit 31%. Many asked if he was actually suggesting this was the new customer service rating target to which he responded the number represented a “complex metric.”

When Mr. Smisek took over merged United and Continental airlines, he slashed pensions, incentives, expenses and dismembered one of the better cultures in the industry. He cut costs to such a degree that planes have had to make unscheduled stops to pick up toilet paper. Staff members coined a phrase, “this airline is all Jeff’d up.”

In a little more than three years, Smisek’s disregard for employees directly led to the lowest customer satisfaction in the industry. The company is a case study of what happens when the tough gets going and the organization develops a disregard for workers and a fixation on the numbers.

Last year, I spoke to a group of CEOs in Canada about what it takes to become an Engagement CEO. In the midst of the presentation, I presented United Airlines as an example of how disengagement can impact the customers. At the mention of the name, dozens of executives looked at each other saying, “I hate United Airlines!” One of the laziest ways CEOs can lower expenses is to simply lay people off and cut overhead. But often, these are the very organizations that also alienate customers for years to come.

If you are an airline traveler, here are a few examples you might not be aware of:

  • Unhappy flight attendants routinely turn up the heat in the cabin. Why? If passengers are knocked out they have less work passing out peanuts and drinks. The next time you think you are coming down with the flu, ask them to turn down the heat.
  • Pilots have lost virtually every financial incentive to do their best. Now, many purposely slow down flights to get bumped into overtime. If they make a plane a half-hour late that equals about $70.00. If 200 passengers are on board and their average income is $30/hour the collective loss is $3,000. The most cynical pilots have figured out how to time a flight so that it arrives as late as possible without getting cited.

The treatment of employees at United Airlines is an especially sad example of how a single-minded fixation on shareholder value damages the overall brand of an organization. As Gallup has indicated, only 13% of the world’s workers are engaged. United’s example makes a good case that business leaders are not immune to the great disengagement.

Employee engagement hits all of us virtually every day.

We can only hope the future of United’s customer experience will improve. Last year, Jeff Smisek abruptly resigned after becoming embroiled in an antitrust scandal involving the Port Authority of New Jersey. It appears that Jeff had arranged a low load money-losing flight between Newark and Columbia, South Carolina near the PA Chairman’s weekend home.

Time and time again, we find that CEOs make dreadful decisions that since they run a commodity it is a good idea to treat their own people as a commodity. But the results are terrible for customers and shareholders alike. We will forgive them for taking away our peanuts and charging for drinks but when employees start to treat customers badly, it is all over.

The costs of these shortcuts are always bigger in the long run. In the last few years, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications routinely made “America’s Most Hated Companys Lists.” For some, just the mention of their name inspires Tourette’s Syndrome. The ill-will became so strong they have merged and now represent themselves as Spectrum, “America’s fastest growing Cable and Internet provider.” Yes, they are the fastest growing because they merged and made a business decision to hide their old names.

In the years ahead, companies that compete with narrow profit margins have one asset they must rely upon and elevate to full partnership in their success: The talent. By and large, if we treat people with that kind of dignity they will show up and they will do their best.

Coming this summer from David Harder, President of Inspired Work: The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press). Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose with All of Today’s Employees.





David Harder
David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.

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  1. WOW! just WOW! Thank you, David for clearing up the mystery that I have tried to figure out over the past week. I saw a post from a very dissatisfied customer and didn’t want to get into the rant. Now I know the rest of the story. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you David for clarifying too many what is actually already thought of but not said. My nephew is an upper employee with United and if it were that he was speaking to his auntie, I would love to find his take on this situation. I have a MileagePlus card, which I am considering dropping. What makes this even worse is that I hate to fly and your article is just one more piece of anxiety for me now when I fly and complete the last remaining set reservations already booked. Yikes

  3. It seems that the passenger was not the ideal passenger and did create part of the problem. I agree that the gate agent could have, and should have, avoided it all.

    However, clearly, the security people over reacted. Part of the problem, of course, is the airlines’ practice of deadheading staff from their residential city to the city of their next flight assignment.

    When I was flying a lot (6-7 flights per week) I always avoided United when I could. They have always had a customer comes last attitude in my opinion.