The Solution to United Airlines' Woes

United Airlines has taken a beating lately, and rightfully so. From me being thrown off a flight for snapping a picture of my seat to a flight diverting after parents questioned the appropriateness of an in-flight movie for children, recent news has not reflected well on the airline. And even stories that do not make national headlines--like my loud crew a few nights ago and Damian's rude crew last month--point to an airline that is trapped in a downward spiral. And yet the solution is right under United's nose.

Notice the commonality of the four recent issues I highlight above. The problem wasn't the equipment or any safety issue. It wasn't on-time performance or lost baggage. The problems have all centered around service. And on the flip-side, the small bit of positive press UA has received lately--for holding a flight so a man could see his dying mother--was about service as well.

It's all about service.

Frequent flyers like me are not demanding perfection and are frankly willing to put up with a fair amount. Every airline and its corresponding loyalty program has pluses and minuses. United does not have wi-fi on most aircraft, unlike most of the domestic competition, and upgrades have become much harder even for top-tier elites. But I remain loyal to United because of the many happy memories, most of those memories involving great service, over the last decade. And that honestly is the truth.

Good customer service is priceless--a smile and a laugh is not something that can be bought.

And the strange thing is that United seems to understand this. Take a look at this recent video seen before the safety demo on flights:

What a beautiful message. It is exactly what the airline should be focusing on and the message is so salient in light of the recent, let's face it, horror stories on United.

united-passbook-bpsChanging the attitude of ground staff, FAs, and pilots is easier said than done and if I had a quick and viable solution, I would be consulting for United. Ultimately, the "co-workers" (as CEO Jeff Smisek likes to call them) will have to come together and have the resolve that the one gentleman in the video above has in stating, "I come to work because I love to come to work."

I'll end with a story. Last week I was flying from Newark to Los Angeles on a mid-morning flight (737-800 with an ex-Con crew). Miraculously, I received a complimentary upgrade to business class about 23 hours prior to the flight. The service onboard was amazing--the purser was smiling the entire time and extremely attentive. Passengers were addressed by name and orders taken by status. My favorite chicken dish was catered and seconds were offered on both nuts and ice cream.

We faced strong headwinds, pushing the flight time over six hours. Throughout that entire six hours, I don't think the purser sat down once. She constantly monitored the cabin and kept every glass full, always with a smile. What a tremendous flight.

Service does matter, United seems aware of that, and now the airline must find a way to effectuate that culture of service that to this point has remained elusive to many. Many are waiting and our patience is growing thin.


Nathaniel April 6, 2013 at 09:32 am

Service is the reason why I try to book with Delta whenever possible. As a passenger of size, I do my best to try and not be a problem for the person sitting next to me. The Delta FA's have always been kind, letting me invade the galley areas and they always seem happy to chat. They have even Op Upped me on occasion. It's those small things that out weigh the price differences, sometimes better connections, worthless sky peso's that keep me flying Delta. (Plus Biscoff cookies are always great.)

Logan April 6, 2013 at 05:02 pm

It's great that you had a super flight in Business Class but the real service test is all of us regular guys who have to fly economy and don't get the added smiles and favorite chicken dishes :-)

United and American Airlines have some of the worst FA's I've ever flown with. Snarky attitudes, condescending commentary, rarely an acknowledgement that you are even there.. Compare that with any of the Asian based FA's who are more caring, attentive and customer focused than their other Western world colleagues especially in economy.

I flew on Singapore Airlines in February and told the male FA that I enjoyed their service in economy very much. He said I wish our Asian customers would think of us that way. Meaning that the Asian region customers are far more demanding in their view of service. I told him, let those customer's fly on an American based airline and they will run back to Singapore Airlines quickly.

United doesn't get it, American doesn't get it...service means more than ever as a differentiator..even in economy.

Tiff April 6, 2013 at 05:23 pm

"I hope you don't think I'm a terrorist." = Get off the plane. THAT is why you were thrown off the plane. Don't you get that? You're framing the conversation in an entirely self-serving way.

Douglas Moran April 6, 2013 at 06:29 pm

This is why I fly Southwest all the time. I used to fly United; then I got crappy service on an SFO-Aukland flight. Absolutely horrible. And when I complained about it, by sending an actual, physical letter detailing my troubles, I was sent a $100 voucher. Not a free flight; not a raw amount of money; a voucher that wouldn't even buy me a one-way ticket on a local flight. Insulting. I haven't flown United since.

I used to travel American. But their planes are almost always filthy and/or damaged--I lost count of the number of broken seats I had for Austin-SF Bay Area flights. And their ground crews were almost always surly and unpleasant. I got tired of battling the difficulties of air travel in the US and the American service people. No more flights on American.

By contrast, Southwest employees are wonderful; patient, attentive, and helpful. Yes, they have "open" seating, and yes their planes are not luxury items--an all 757 fleet. But the people are wonderful, and so I am loyal. (Their policy of not charging for your first two bags, and not charging an extra fee when you change flights, are also huge attractions. American is horrible when you have to change flights.)

I used to travel every week. I went from American to Southwest and now evangelize Southwest to people. What does that tell you? :)

MeanMeosh April 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Your travails with UA remind me of an investor that holds on to a stock just a little too long. You buy in at a good time, the stock triples, and you feel good about yourself. Then things start going downhill. There seems to be a new negative press release every week or two, the stock drops from $50 to $30, and you don't feel so good about things anymore. Then the short covering kicks in, and it bounces back up to $35. Oh, there's hope! But then reality sets in again, there's yet another earnings miss, and you're down to $25. Rinse, lather, and repeat the process a couple more times, and you get the point.

You seem to keep going back to United because every now and then, you get a positive experience that reminds you of the good times. But the reality is, the new United is not the same airline you fell in love with. Think of it as little more than a short-covering "dead cat bounce". At some point, you have to admit defeat, cut your losses, and move on.

Chris April 6, 2013 at 10:54 pm

The "evangelizing" point that Douglas made exactly fits my thoughts about all of these United horror stories from the last few months (and my own experiences). In the past five years, I've gone from:

Telling everybody I know that they would be fools not to fly United, to:

Telling everybody who asks that I love United, but I know that they're not great if you don't have status, to:

Telling everybody who asks that all of the American airlines treat you terribly, so pick a carrier that works for you.

I hope it doesn't make me sound like too much of an entitled UA elite (I'm only a Silver anyway), but my friends do ask me about airlines because they know that I'm a transportation geek, and I've gone from pushing United to pushing Amtrak because of the decline in their service.

James Santiago April 6, 2013 at 11:42 pm


I read your postings quite frequently. I understand you may still have some offense in your heart towards United since being ejected off the plane... I agree with @TIFF, she has a point and I feel you shouldn't be so condescending towards United... I've seen United Win and United Fail overall... there's a better way to get your point across.

Gratitude precedes a miracle...

bahain April 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm


irateT April 7, 2013 at 03:41 pm

Wake up, you are not national news. No one cares that you were kicked off a flight. Get over yourself son.

Well irateT, you seem to care. And you missed the news too.

PK April 7, 2013 at 08:02 pm

Perhaps we should look at this philosophically. It doesn't appear that Matt is nursing a grudge over being ejected from the flight but merely mentioned the incident in a list of others to make a point. For doing so, some commentators reminded us that they think he deserved to get thrown off for saying the word "terrorist" not due to him actually representing a threat, but for getting "uppity".

Another commentator remarks that Asians are more demanding of their flight crews and even unappreciative of the amazing service they receive. This gets me to thinking: Americans, or America, is really down right now. Although this blog is a bit elitist, I take off my shapka, er, hat to Matt and other bloggers here who are helping set standards and not take things for granted. It goes two ways (and I see Matt and others doing their part):

When I get off a plane and the flight crew is lined up at the front, my wife and I take time to say thank you even if for a half second. When I get great service, I write in to the company. When I'm going through passport control and the TSA, I smile, say good day and thank you. We dress professionally for a flight (not full suit and tie, but like we go to work.) If passengers act like cattle, it shouldn't surprise us if the sausage factory starts taking a cue to treat us accordingly.

PK April 8, 2013 at 03:00 pm

FYI, airline ratings released:

offshoreoildude April 8, 2013 at 09:11 pm

I so hope you end up on a 'no fly' list.

Pim April 9, 2013 at 08:43 am

The reason why they are kissing your butt now is because they want to get back into your good graces. Don't get sucked in. Switch airlines.

tk April 10, 2013 at 04:37 pm

You're absolutely right, Matt -- I'm sure all the head honchos at UA are fully aware of the importance of service. You hit home when you state this is much easier said than done. I think there are way too many analytical layers to peel back to really discuss in a short paragraph or article. The first thing which comes to my mind is the difficulty in enforcing a set standard of customer service, considering the bureaucratic nature of airline corporations entangled with strict FA unions. The next major thing I can think of is the screening, vetting, and culling process of flight attendants. Also in line with that and more importantly, the POOL of applicants to draw from nowadays. Something obviously changed from present day compared to the mythical quality of flight attendants you oft hear about from decades past. No doubt there are many more angles to this but just a few common facets.

Also, not meaning to insult anyone's intelligence, but here is a brief insight on why the differences between US and Asian flight attendants as some previous comments have mentioned:

Much of this (I assume) is illegal in the US, thanks to our stacking anti-discriminatory laws.

Btw Matt, came upon this article and site by complete accident. Glad to see you're well and as boisterous as ever! Check my e-mail line; I'm pretty confident you'll remember who I am. Can't believe it's been 9 years already.

All the best.


Great to hear from you. Indeed I was just thinking the other day that its been 9 years since graduation and that made me feel old! I look forward to the reunion next year.

Thanks for weighing in as well on the topic--good points and an interesting article.

Dog Rancher April 21, 2013 at 03:18 pm

I'm a retired Continental Airlines Captain.

All of the good service you're experiencing is coming from the Ex-Con crews, not the legacy United crews.

Even though I'm now retired, it still pains me to see the UAL culture embraced and the service-oriented CAL culture kicked to the gutter.

The biggest problem is and will continue to be Jeffy Smisek. He is likely the most hated manager in the airline business and hasn't a single clue as to how to run an airline. Whatever remains of the CAL way of doing things is left over from the Gordon Bethune era and has steadily disappeared over time. It looks as though the last little bit has finally slipped away.

It was funny listening to the UAL employees: they couldn't wait to get rid of Glen Tilton for Smisek. Now they know what we CAL employees knew from the beginning.

And the slow-motion collapse of the combined airline continues.

Tonya F. October 21, 2013 at 04:21 am

I recently flew United with my mother and two cousins (who are also mother and daughter) on a trip to Honolulu and on the return flight to Los Angeles our previously assigned seats had been changed. I would have been okay with the change had we been sitting together. I called customer service after discovering the error (the day before our fight) and was told that this happens whenever there's a change in the flight or when they are attempting to accomodate families and that there was nothing they could do at that point because it was in the hands of the airport (really?) We attempted to change seats again at airport check in and was given an empty apology when we were told that we could not sit together.

The same thing happened to my cousins on our flight out from LAX to Honolulu as well as a couple sitting next to my mother.

I am a frequent flyer of Virgin, Frontier and Southwest and so are my parents. We have NEVER experienced such poor nonchalant service. This is my last time flying United.

I've been a registered nurse going on 20 yrs and compassion is how I choose to serve my patients. There is no compassion with traveling anymore.

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