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United's Make-or-break Chance

The leading U.S. air carriers' success, in large part, is due to their people and the added value they bring to the business. Untied can get there too.

February 10, 2006
Two weeks ago, United Airlines finally came out of bankruptcy, ending, as the Associated Press put it, "the longest and costliest bankruptcy of any airline."

As someone who has flown many hundreds of thousands of miles on United, this was a big deal for me. Over the years I’ve been treated every way a passenger can be treated, but it usually breaks down into three areas: the good, the bad and the ugly.

    The bad and the ugly incidents on United stick out only because they have been infrequent and few. Like the time last November when I was racing to get through security in Chicago only to be told that the garment bag I had carried with me on the flight into O’Hare the day before was now too big and had to be checked instead. The bag hadn’t magically changed overnight, but United wasn’t about to explain why their bag policy had.

    Or, the time a few years ago when I had a United ticket agent tell me that I would have to pay some huge change fee to rebook a ticket. When I complained and told her I was a 100,000-mile-a-year flier, she told me she didn’t care how much I flew. My response was simple: If you don’t care about your best customers, who exactly do you care about?

    Thankfully, those incidents are the exceptions. What I remember most are good experiences when I was treated exceptionally well. Like the time when I was living in Hawaii and had my overnight flight to Chicago canceled at 1:30 in the morning. That wasn’t the good part. What was good was the next night, when, as I was finally getting on my rebooked flight to the Mainland, the United station manager came on the plane to personally and profusely apologize, at my seat, about the inconvenience I had been caused. Or all the times I had a ticket agent or gate clerk or phone agent go through all sorts of contortions to try to satisfy some demand I had--and sound happy while doing it.

    And that’s the single thing that sticks out in my mind about United’s 38 months in bankruptcy --how pleasant and nice most of the airline’s employees were despite all the tough times they were going through.

    It couldn’t have been easy. United comes out of Chapter 11 with 30 percent fewer employees and $3 billion less in annual labor costs. Those workers who made it through and continued with the airline took two steep pay cuts and had their defined-benefit pension plan eliminated. How do you stay upbeat and smiling to customers through all of that?

    I don’t know that I could have done it, but this shows the great strength that a company like United can bring to bear even in the wake of such a massive financial restructuring--the strength of its workforce.

    As one of America’s big "legacy" air carriers, United has a proud history. Remember "Fly the Friendly Skies"? It was United’s workers who personified the "Friendly Skies" campaign, and they made customers feel that it wasn’t just another slick marketing slogan.

    United has a tough path ahead, but that’s true for all U.S. airlines as oil prices approach $70 a barrel. Industry analysts, however, say that the "new" United comes out of bankruptcy leaner, smarter and more competitive. It is starting fresh financially, has a great name, an honorable tradition and a golden opportunity to build a new, stronger future.

    The most successful of today’s U.S. air carriers are Southwest and JetBlue. Their success, in large part, is due to their people and the added value they bring to the business.

    United can get there too. It has a clean slate, a strong name and a gutsy workforce, but this may be the last, best chance to make it. For the sake of all those United employees who treated me well over the years, I hope it does.

Workforce Management, January 30, 2006, p. 58 -- Subscribe Now!