I was going to start blogging about our trip to Greece this summer, and then United happened. At least I have SMI/J and the good folks at United to blame for pushing that back at least another day.
In case you missed it last night, United fired their CEO for his involvement in a bribery scandal. If even a portion of the information we’ve learned so far is true, this was an act of monumental stupidity with a good enough audit trail to cost people their jobs.
But, this post isn’t about rehashing the, ahem, salient details. And, it’s not to point out all the horrific things United has done over the past few years, though some of them will undoubtedly come up here. I had given up lamenting most of the deficiencies United exhibited because they became the new status quo. At some point, if there’s no change, customers and employees augment their behavior to fit the “new normal”.
It can’t really be a clean slate just because the CEO is out. I’m a firm believer that if it took you 6 months to break something (like a company) it’ll take 6 months (or much longer) to fix it. A great example of that is some of the history behind the demise of TWA. I don’t expect change immediately, but I do expect change, if only because it would be hard to run the airline more poorly given the prosperous times the airlines find themselves in. Here’s what I’m hoping for:
1. Treat your employees well. It might sound like a simple thing but it’s where good customer service starts. I don’t think United and Continental employees got enough support/training during the merger, leading to lots of frustration. And, I run into so many employees on planes who just aren’t happy with management. That’s not exactly news for airlines and union employees, but it seems to be more profound on UA.
2. Hold your employees accountable. This goes hand-in-hand with #1. When employees are treated well, they don’t mind being held accountable. Good employees want to be held accountable, because they also want bad employees held accountable as well. The sheer volume of stories about inconsistent operations I’ve heard are staggering. Holding employees accountable for both the good and bad experiences will lead to….
3. Treat your customers well. Yes, I know I’m playing the role of Captain Obvious. But, this hasn’t been United’s forte for quite some time. At least pre-merger when something went wrong, they would apologize and offer compensation. Now, the answer more often sounds an awful lot like crickets. And, this isn’t just the preacher/choir aspect of United haters. An independent survey by JD Power ranked United last amongst the major carriers in customer satisfaction recently. Delta has made a habit of treating their customers well (maybe not from a loyalty standpoint) and running a good operation. American has, IMO, done a good job of keeping contentious labor issues and a bankruptcy from developing into a toxic mess. Both their employees and management get credit there.
4. Find a way to be profitable that doesn’t involve cheap gas. Despite record profits, United’s revenue is actually down. They’re not alone in this regard, American has had a drop in revenue as well. But, American just got through with bankruptcy and is mostly complete with union contracts. Additionally, they’re updating their fleet at a rapid pace while United is still trying to figure out how to master the basics of in-flight connectivity. Delta is even further ahead of American in terms of the hard and soft product. Things might look rosy right now with record profits, but I’m reminded of the hotel industry. Back when I used to be charged with renovations at various hotels, we always worked hard to renovate properties when the economy was good so we’d have a solid product during the lean years to attract customers. Airlines have a different renovation trajectory than hotels, but some of the same logic applies. If United wants to sustain their financial results when the industry takes another turn for the worst (and it will), they need to be focused now.
It’s hard to say whether new management will see that United has some warts. Record profits can have a way of distracting from hard work. And, United has made some strides on being a leaner, more profitable airline. The tough part about that is most of those changes have come at the expense of the customer.
Given today’s United Airlines, it would take a sea change from their competitors for me to shift a sizable chunk of business back to them. American treats me great and is more rewarding in a number of areas, even though they offer me many less nonstop options out of my home market of Washington, DC. United lost my trust a couple of years ago and continues to reinforce the reasons I book away from them when the opportunity presents itself.
I fully expect that the loyalty equation at American won’t stay as customer friendly as it is right now. However, if they treat me fairly and give me reasonable notice about changes, I’m unlikely to change my habits. United ingrained in me that I am a transaction, as valuable as the fare I buy on any given day and nothing more (and some days much less). I’m sure I’m not the only one.
You can only whip the horse for so long before it doesn’t respond.