Is United Airlines Losing Its Edge? Learning from Its Bad Day at Dulles

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As I write this, I should be close to landing at London’s Heathrow airport on United flight 122.  The cabin lights would have just come on; the friendly flight attendants serving a last round of food and drinks. But I am still at Dulles airport.  UA122 was canceled after the longest comedy of errors I have experienced in over a million miles of flight. Poor performance at several points of execution made for a bad day for the airline — and a very frustrating one for probably several hundred customers.  The meltdown provides important lessons on the importance of discipline and intrinsic motivation. It started off well enough.  The boarding went smoothly.  Most passengers were nestled into their seats well-before the 0930 take-off.   We waited for a few stragglers to board.  After the last of them stumbled down the aisle, plopped down and buckled up, the aircraft pushed back to the soothing sound of the safety video. Then the problems began. The aircraft remained in one spot on the tarmac for an unusually long time.  The pilot finally announced that the aircraft had a problem with a generator that required fixing at the gate.  Enough time must have elapsed for the original gate to have been shut down, so we waited for another one to open.  A text message helpfully appeared at 0957 noting that the 0930 flight was delayed. We off-loaded the plane.  A harried customer-service representative noted that two other overseas flights had maintenance issues, too.  At 10:02 another text optimistically forecasted departure at 1100 and arrival in London at 11:18PM. I considered changing my flight to the 6:35PM flight, which reportedly had lots of open seats.  The train from Heathrow into Central London stops running a few minutes before midnight.  A taxi at that hour could run close to $100.  Since I had purchased the return train ticket, missing the Heathrow Express would mean being out that $30, too. We were recalled to the plane and quickly re-boarded.  A text at 1110 noted an 1115 departure and 1133PM arrival.  Prospects were worsening to catch the Express train.  Always a step behind, another text appeared at 1120, updating the departure to 1130 and arrival at at 11:41PM. I chatted with the passenger seated next to me.  We hoped the pilot might be able to fly at a faster speed in the hope of making up some time.  As if on cue, the pilot announced he was taking on more fuel so he could do exactly that.  Good news! We pushed back from the gate, glad to finally be on our way across the pond.  The plane stopped on the tarmac again for an uncomfortably long time.  The pilot regretfully announced that the fuel door was not closed properly.   Maintenance personnel were on their way to fix it, he said. We waited a long time.  Some trucks finally arrived at the plane and then departed a few minutes later.  Surely, we thought, everything is set. The Captain came on again, frustration evident in his voice.  The maintenance people showed up with the wrong-sized ladder and needed to get a longer one.  Many minutes later the trucks showed up again.  A passenger behind me joked that they had the right ladder this time, but the wrong sized mechanic. Our exasperated Captain keyed the intercom system again.  The fuel door was broken.  We needed to return to the gate and de-plane. With no way to get to Heathrow before midnight, I decided to move to the 6:35 PM flight, arriving at 0630 in London.  At least I could use my train ticket now.  I called the United Customer Service line.  As a “1k customer” (I logged over 100,000 United miles in 2014), I get to use a designated number. A very kind representative answered promptly, apologized for the problems I had experienced, and reserved a seat for me on the 6:35 PM flight.  She asked if seat 21D was ok.  Perfect, I confirmed.  I prefer aisle seats as close to the front as possible. The flight attendants apologized as well.  The flight was being cancelled.  We needed to report to a customer service representative for a new booking.  I’m glad I called ahead and got a good seat. While we were disembarking a new text message appeared at 1230 cheerfully announcing departure at 1247. Seriously? As we queued up for the customer service reps, I decided to call United again to make sure I was all set for seat 21D.  The representative confirmed I was good to go.  I still needed to talk to the United people at Dulles to confirm my luggage would be transferred to my new flight. At 1240 the text messages caught up to reality. An impersonal “noreply” email from United arrived at 1243.  It was from the splendidly named “Proactive Recovery Operations Team.” The email sincerely apologized for my experience this morning, noted how important my business and satisfaction was to United, and invited me to click on a link for a small (very small) token of appreciation. The queue was not moving.  I checked my mobile app to see if my seat assignment had posted.  It had, except now I had 29A (window seat).  I called the United number again to ask what had happened.  The pleasant representative said my seat was 29A and that she had no record at all of me being allocated 21D.  I noted my two previous conversations.  She said United keeps no records of phone calls and associated transactions.  Sorry.  Nothing she could do. By most accounts United is a fine airline that is operating at a profit. My experiences on United have been mostly positive. Today’s performance, however, revealed potential breakdowns at the point of execution in maintenance and customer care.  Were pre-flight checks done properly?  How did three planes have maintenance problems all at once?  Is this a systemic problem with a particular team or merely coincidental?  How did the fuel door break?  Why keep texting out-of-date updates? How could the maintenance team have brought the wrong ladder?  How much fuel was wasted during these preventable problems?  Why doesn’t the “PROT” have the ability to associate a customer name on an email? Why the seating mishap? On the scale of problems, several are paltry.  But combined with the maintenance issues, these so-called little things make me wonder if United just had a bad day or is losing its edge. Organizational and personal discipline are marks of excellence,  Books such as Larry Bossidy’s Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit illustrate the impact of consistent performance to established standards and expectations. Real discipline emerges from intrinsic motivation.  Lord Moran, WWI veteran and Winston Churchill doctor and biographer, referred to this in The Anatomy of Courage as discipline from within.  Dan Pink argues powerfully in his Ted talk, “The puzzle of motivation,” that reliably high performance occurs when people have Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Thankfully, today’s problems were primarily in customer time and frustration (and a small dent in United’s bottom line). Let’s hope these are not symptoms of deeper issues. Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC