October 10, 2015
employee engagement

Lessons In Culture From United Airlines

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

This week I flew from Las Vegas to San Francisco on United Airlines. Because United is affiliated with the Star Alliance group—and I’ve fallen head-deep into the business travel trap of collecting air miles—when I’m trying to get back to British Columbia and Air Canada does not fly direct, I am forced to use United Airlines. I have done so for the better part of fifteen years.

Like many other customers, I would not consider myself a raving fan of how United operates.

When I approached the counter this week in Las Vegas to sort out a boarding card issue, I took it as an opportunity to ask the agent how things are going at United these days. Specifically, I wanted to know if she felt their new CEO, Oscar Muñoz, would bring any change to the company, its culture and its operating practices.

“Oh I do hope so,” the lovely agent replied. “I’ve been here for more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Evidently, neither has its customer base (138 million in 2014, according to United) or those who track airline quality and service.

Take for instance the Airline Quality Rating 2015 report. In its 25th year of reporting on airline performance, the 2015 version does not indicate things are significantly improving for United Airlines. In fact, things seem to be sliding even further backwards. A few data points:

  • United’s 2014 overall Airline Quality Rating (AQR) score fell to -1.62 from -1.43 in 2013
  • On-time arrival performance declined from 79.3% in 2013 to 76.0% in 2014
  • Mishandled baggage rate increased from 3.47 per 1,000 passengers in 2013 to 3.67 in 2014
  • The rate of customer complaints increased to 2.71 in 2014 compared to 2.14 per 100,000 passengers

Skytrax is another service that surfaces interesting data points about United Airlines.

After over 3,500 passenger reviews on Skytrax, United has earned a 3/10 rating from those customers. The comments are none too flattering either. “Flight attendants seemed unapologetic and were even borderline rude”, “I felt like an inconvenience, not a customer,” and “I honestly can’t comprehend with human logic how this company still exists,” are but a smattering of comments lodged on the Skytrax site … this week!

Skytrax also issues what it refers to as “airline ratings”. These ratings come from an in-house audit team consisting of “dedicated, experienced air transport research professionals.” These professionals put together a rating system that the airlines use to gauge their product, but also to use for marketing purposes. The range is between a one-star rating to a five-star rating. Skytrax has awarded United Airlines a three-star rating, for “delivering a fair quality performance that conforms to an industry “average” of acceptable product and service standards.”

As an infrequent customer, that pretty much sums up my impression of United Airlines. It is an average experience, both of its product and its service. Three points out of ten is a bit harsh (in terms of the aggregated customer feedback score), but the airline is certainly not in the customer service vicinity of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific. Both of these possess 5-star ratings from Skytrax. I have had the pleasure of flying on both airlines and can vouch for an incredible customers-first ethos. They truly set the bar for an incredible flying experience.

But if you are a United Airlines customer—and a member of the Star Alliance family—there may be hope on the horizon.

On Labor Day weekend of 2015, Oscar Muñoz became CEO of United Airlines. Regardless of the circumstances that led him to the position, after a month on the job, it seems he is determined to fix what ails this $38 billion company. It’s a company that operates over 4,700 daily departures through its 84,000 employees.

It seems Mr. Muñoz wants to unite its corporate culture, in an attempt to improve its operations.

In other words, he aims to tackle and develop employee engagement, to increase customer service, to improve its business results.

One of his first public initiatives was to launch United Airtime.

The site is Mr. Muñoz’s attempt to “to connect directly with United’s customers and employees to answer your questions and get your feedback about how we can become the world’s best airline.”

I find it quite interesting. This is not a site for customers only. It’s for both “customers and employees”. Muñoz could have built a site tucked safely behind the firewall of United Airline’s corporate intranet for employees only, but he didn’t. It’s an open site, and through a video that accompanies the site, he is laying things on the line, pleading for people to provide feedback and suggestions. “Most importantly,” he states in the video, “I promise to report back on how those ideas are being turned into actions.”

Furthermore, in an interview, Muñoz said, “I would think we could want to offer a better product.” In fact, with respect to United employees, he suggested that they had been allowed “to be disengaged, disenchanted, disenfranchised — the three nasty D’s. I’ve got to win all (of them) back.” No doubt as a previous United board member, he had flown United in the past and noticed these three nasty D’s on occasion.

If that were not enough, on October 1, 2015, he orchestrated the delivery of full-page advertisements in several American newspapers, apologizing for the current state of affairs at United. The ads start out, “To our passengers, my fellow employees, and the communities where we live and work.” It’s another example of how Muñoz seems committed to uniting its culture, such that it serves the interests of all of its stakeholders (customers, employees and the community) far better than it has been in recent years.

Like many customers of United Airlines, I hope things improve. I know it will not happen overnight. Culture change is not a light switch anyone can magically press to inculcate the right behaviors and attitudes. As someone that advocates for organizations to fuel its future by an engaged and purpose-driven workforce—comprised of team members who genuinely want to put its customers first—I am intrigued. I’ll be keeping a close eye on United Airlines, and wish Muñoz and the entire organization nothing but good luck in their task ahead.

I know there is one employee in Las Vegas who is certainly welcoming the change.

Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization

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