What’s wrong with United Airlines comes straight from the top. The IT problems and labor relations are just symptoms.
United’s Jeff Smisek sat at dinner with the Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and listened to his request for a special flight to Colombia, South Carolina. And ultimately gave him that flight, because the airline wanted favors from the Port Authority which controls Newark airport. Instead of calling the FBI. And Smisek is a lawyer.
United’s Chairman and CEO would have been replaced by now if not for the drop in fuel prices. Those gave him a new lease on life, because the airline is profitable in spite of itself. It is still very badly run. And it’s easy to see why.
Management resents their customers, and they resent their employees.
- Frequent customers were called “over-entitled”
- And employees are blamed for the airline’s problems
- They straight up lie to customers when hiding information from them.
- United’s twitter team diagnosed one challenge for the carrier as having too many customers.
- And they turned customer care over to their lawyer.
So it shouldn’t be at all shocking when the Chairman and Chief Executive of the airline that stranded a monk in Africa says that customers don’t understand the airline, that wants to be more like AT&T.
Some travelers are “having difficulty recognizing that we’re now a business,” Smisek told attendees… “They criticize us if we charge for more legroom. Let me tell you though: that’s what businesses do.”
…”If you want more data on your data plan so you can watch faster, better cat videos, you call AT&T, and they’re happy to increase your data plan,” said Smisek. “And they charge you for it. That’s what businesses do.”
Smisek is frustrated that customers aren’t living up to his expectations, and customers need to change. They need to realize that United aspires to be like AT&T.
Which isn’t a good thing, but explains a lot.
My own view is that:
- United wasn’t a strong operational carrier when Continental took over
- But Continental had a reputation as the best run airline at the time, and was supposed to fix United
- That reputation was built on the executives that preceded Smisek: Gordon Bethune and Larry Kellner. Had Kellner been allowed to stay on, things might have been different.
- Instead of fixing things, they were made worse.
- This isn’t a new CEO at the helm. If customers, or employees, aren’t executing his vision then he owns that and should be taking responsibility. He should have acknowledged failure, identified the gaps in leadership, and behaved differently.
- That he hasn’t done it suggests it isn’t likely to happen.
There’s only one way to fix the airline. But as long as fuel prices are low, and competitors’ capacity remains restrained, they’ll make money no matter their narrative towards employees and customers. And the board will likely play along.