Business stories like the one new United CEO Oscar Munoz is telling are almost always apocryphal, although they sometimes contain a kernel a truth. They can encapsulate an idea in a way that goes viral because it’s in the form of a narrative. And it seems to represent how Munoz is thinking about changing the culture at United.
- Like many United fliers in recent years, Oscar Munoz was recently on a lousy flight to Chicago. It was Labor Day, just after his daughter got married and just before he took over as CEO of the airline.
He was in the seat he always seems to get, 22A, on a cramped 50-seat regional jet. Two people were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked. The plane was delayed on the tarmac for about a half hour, only to experience further delays upon landing because an airport gate wasn’t ready. Then he had what seemed like a “five-hour wait for my luggage to get there.”
Yet through that, his most vivid recollection is Jenna. Jenna was the flight attendant on that miserable trip. “Throughout that whole disaster, her smile, her willingness to take care of everybody on that small flight, asking ‘more ice, more drinks, anything else I can do?’”
As he waited at the baggage carousel, he sidled up anonymously to a young couple and prodded them for complaints, “Can you believe how long this luggage thing is taking?” They agreed but quickly mentioned Jenna. “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?” Munoz called that a watershed moment for him as he takes the controls at the world’s second-largest airline. “Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said.
“The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people. “If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.”
Tells that this story isn’t quite how things happen:
- The CEO of United — himself a member of the Board before that — ‘always seems to get’ seat 22A (as though it is outside his control)
- His example of a flight from hell is a 30 minute tarmac delay (something outside the control of the airline most likely) and a wait for a gate on arrival. Then an exaggerated delay for luggage.
- Yet with a happy ending.
This is all carefully told. Nonetheless, Munoz is right: US airlines are making historic investments in their inflight hard product. American alone is floating numbers like $2 billion (accounting for all of its previously-announced investments and not including new aircraft). But no matter how much they invest in seats, or inflight entertainment, or internet, they cannot deliver a product that’s on par with many of their international competitors.
United brought back ‘the Friendly Skies’ without friendly people, describing their features and benefits as ‘flyer friendly’.
The actual friendly part doesn’t really cost more, but it’s much harder to create a culture — and the incentives — which foster it. In fact, net net it tends to be airlines with lower labor costs that are actually friendlier.
Flight attendants can be there primarily for your safety or can provide an experience of true hospitality. In the U.S. outstanding crews are generally great by virtue of their own choice and drive rather than company culture. Fixing that is the part that not only doesn’t cost money, it can be less expensive, but it’s hard to get there once you’ve lost it.
United is the airline that introduced flight attendants in the first place. And it was one of the leaders in unionization as well, former airline President Pat Patterson pioneered turning employee scheduling over to the unions, believing that they were closer to the needs of their members than the company was.
In the heavily unionized sector, there’s little relationship between customer service and pay or advancement. There are modest efforts, like giving most frequent customers certificates that they can offer to employees who go above and beyond (and those certificates then in turn serve as raffle tickets for modest drawings), those efforts are very much at the margins. Since it’s generally hard to get fired from a union position, service standards are very difficult to enforce.
Though even at a United, the differences in customer service — aside from the occasional flight attendant who simply by force of personality exudes an outward love for customers and their job, by no fault of the company’s or its work rules — can be seen on a route-by-route basis. United’s flight attendants are often the most indifferent in premium cabins (where there are fewer passengers to serve) on the most interesting international routes. That’s because the most jaded tend to be the most senior, and flight attendants ‘bid’ or pick their routes based on seniority. And they also bid their work position on the plane in a similar fashion. So you get the ironic outcome of serving your highest paying customers with the highest seniority crew members who often want to offer superior service the least.
This isn’t always and everywhere a problem of unions, Southwest and Alaska manage a higher proportion of friendly flight attendants than the legacy carriers while being unionized. Delta’s non-union flight attendants aren’t friendlier than Southwest’s unionized ones.
Delta’s operations have been relatively similar to United’s and American’s in terms of incentives despite the former being non-union and the latter having flight attendants unions. Delta has taken more cultural approaches to improve flight attendant demeanor, such as the introduction of a glamorous ‘red dress.’ (Unions complained that the sexy optional red dress wasn’t offered in plus-sizes, and pilots evaluate female Delta flight attendant figures based on whether or not they are “RDQ” or ‘Red Dress Qualified’) The archetype here is the flight attendant from the airline’s most famous safety video, Deltalina.
There are lots of things that an airline can do to demoralize their employees, and not doing those things is a good start. Operationally challenged airlines are depressing for employees, they are constantly dealing with unhappy passengers. Cost-cutting airlines are depressing for employees, because it chips away at the product they need to be proud of and because they’re the ones who bear the brunt of customer displeasure when there’s a mismatch between expectations and product (“but we used to get a meal free”).
Not demoralizing your employees though doesn’t create a service culture where crew members:
- feel empowered
- go out of their way for customers and are rewarded for doing so
- see it as their job to make the travel experience better for guests onboard, and therefore offer hospitality
Put another way, it’s not clear what the path is to bring United back to credibly be where they claimed they were in 1982.
In fact, just 6 years after that — in 1988 — United was already ‘rededicated‘ to giving you the service you deserve’. They haven’t accomplished that in the past 27 years. How will they do it now?
Munoz wants “5,000 Jennas” and a pony. And at this point we don’t know how he intends to get either. If you want to turn around a culture, you can bonus the kinds of activities you want to see more of (but it can be difficult to do that in an unequal way with a unionized workforce), and you can promote those who exhibit the values and actions you want to promote (but there are little opportunities for this in a unionized workforce).
There are better unionized airline cultures, and worse non-union ones. The destruction of the culture is not the fault of workers or unions. But the airline will need flexibility in work and compensation rules if it is going to turn around a culture that management has ruined.