With my apologies to Glenn Tilton...
A piece in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday captured the frustration many of us have experienced flying on post-merger United. Essentially taking a "mileage run" from Chicago to San Francisco to Las Vegas to Houston to Chicago, the reporter shares the ups and downs of his trip, remarking, "Overall, the trip was a microcosm of what United passengers say and what the industry statistics suggest: Flights on United Airlines nowadays can go relatively smoothly, but if there's a problem, things can go very wrong in a hurry." How true.
But it was one quote in particular that caught my eye--
"We've got to improve," said Martin Hand, United senior vice president of customer experience. "The last year and a half to two years have been a challenge, no doubt about it."
Two years? Mr. Hand, imported from Continental Airlines, is just plain wrong.
Things started to go downhill on 03 March, 2012--the day United Airlines died and Continental Airlines, doing business as United Airlines, emerged as the merger victor.
I look at United Airlines like I look at the Bush Administration in 2003. Smisek and Co. had a vision--a praiseworthy vision in many respects--to rapidly create a merged airline that would capture resource-saving synergies while offering a product that would strengthen the industry and save passengers from an industry crumbling under its own excesses.
Like Vice President Cheney telling Tim Russert prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Continental management believed that United customers were terribly dissatisfied with the current regime and would welcome the invading army from Houston as liberators. Truth be told, if all had gone right we would be patting Smisek and Co. on the back right now, celebrating a fast and decisive victory.
But before the clock struck midnight on 04 March 2012, we knew this transition of power would be no cakewalk. The new website was broken, phone lines were clogged, and airport counters faced lines dozens of (angry) passengers deep. The “new and improved” system was selling $39 upgrades to those with no status while full-fare elites were told that first class was full. Flights were not crediting to MileagePlus and miles were missing. Itineraries were lost and ticketed reservations were suddenly unconfirmed.
How could a team of well-educated, veteran airline executives seemingly ignore all the warning signs and proceed with a “shock and awe” system switchover that in retrospect seems so poorly thought out and unwisely executed? A look at the lead-up to the Iraq War is again instructive.
Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the Iraq war—how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the government knew very well at the time were mistakes—must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2002 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn. In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power—enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world.
That was Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books in 2006, but pull out “Iraq” and insert “United” and you have a very analogous situation, where the War of Imagination envisions an idyllic, profitable, global airline that would quash the competition. Here, I’ll do it for you:
Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the United merger—how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the industry knew very well at the time were mistakes—must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2011 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn. In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power—enough to wipe out the disgrace of the U.S. airline industry and remake the threatening world.
Scary, isn’t it? I've only changed a few words...
And yet that is the problem of Groupthink, a phenomenon that plagues both government and private ventures, time after time, year after year.
A little more fact finding on the ground, a little more gathering of intelligence, a little more critical thinking could have prevented so many of the absolutely aggravating problems that frequent flyers and kettles alike have faced in the last three months. United had grand plans, but thus far has failed to candidly and honestly assess how those plans can be realized. They have acted first, hoping that all will work out well in the end, but that is not way to conduct a war…or run a business.
Exemplified by United CFO John Rainey (who sounded like Donald Rumsfeld saying “You go to war with the army you have---not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” when he stated that some elites are "over-entitled”) we see a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance. At 77 Wacker, I picture Team United sitting around trying to convince themselves that everything is A-OK as they march toward the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel when they know, deep down, that the war has exposed numerous fissures in the organization that will not be easy to remedy.
Truly, things are not okay. I think about the thousands of elite customers in the MileagePlus program—the true life-blood of the airline—and how many are now turning away from the merged airline. It is the little things that have slowly added up the last few months and more each day are experiencing the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Thankfully, there is no carnage in this war, but there is damage—damaged expectations, damaged loyalty, and damaged confidence. While American Airlines laughs in glee as many make their exodus from United, people like Martin Hand do not get it. The problem does not date back two years—it dates back less than three months.
Hindsight is always 20-20, or so they say. In this case, I am not so sure. Looking back, we see that a gradual phase-in of SHARES and a longer training period for legacy United employees would have been preferred. But that does not address the hundreds of careless programming errors or the total lack of indifference displayed by so many white collar and front-line employees of late.
Think about the ethnic make-up of Iraq, a mix of Kurds, Shiite, and Sunnis. Efforts at reconciliation proved tumultuous early on and by 2006, the country lurched toward civil war. With pilots bickering over scope clause and flight attendants balkanizing based on past allegiance, we also see a precarious situation emerging at United.
The best hope for salvation in Iraq and salvation for United lie in a similar strategy: a surge. For United, this surge will not be an influx of troops, working to stabilize a situation fast unraveling--the airline already has enough troops on the ground. Rather, it will be a surge of customer goodwill and of plain, old-fashioned sympathy, the ingredient that has largely been lacking the post-merger world. Attitude is critical and I submit that more United flyers are angry over indifference and rudeness than with the structural problems that lead to these displays of unprofessionalism.
Sympathy and a bright smile, of course, is not enough to achieve victory. Victory will require functioning systems, moderate fuel prices, and increased demand in travel. It will require energetic employees willing to go the extra mile for customers and take pride in their new airline. Some of those factors are beyond United's control, but this is what is clear: United is not doing enough now to show customers that they care. The good news is that this is a relatively easy and inexpensive problem to fix.
Mission accomplished? Not yet. But let's hope for a change in strategy sooner rather than later. The war is not hopelessly lost.