Yesterday I flew United Express from Austin to Denver. It was a Canadair CRJ-700 operated by GoJet.
Katarina was working the first class cabin. She’s been flying for only a month, and has probably worked about 50 flights. She’s still finding her confidence making inflight announcements. But she hustled, and she showed real care for her passengers.
- A little girl and her father came up to the front of the cabin. Someone was using the back lavatory and she really needed to go. So Katarina comforted her, and helped the furious father understand that she wasn’t trying to enforce rules against his daughter by not letting her use the first class lavatory… there is no first class lavatory. She walked them to the back of the plane and comforted them.
- The man sitting behind me wanted another drink while we were in our descent. You could see her do some mental calculations, what does she still have to do for final checks and how much time do we have left? It took her but a second and responded, “of course” and moments later brought him a new cocktail while she was picking up everyone else’s glasses.
- She brought around the snack basket early in the flight, but I asked if she might give me a stroopwafel instead? I saw they were stocked, they’re a coach snack and it was an afternoon flight. So she gave me one. And then as the flight came to a close she brought me another (I hadn’t asked).
She was clearly going the extra mile, and I realized I’d trade a mainline aircraft for a regional jet every day if I got to fly with Katerina.
And that made me think of Jenna.
United CEO Oscar Munoz, a month in to the job and before taking medical leave, was traveling the United system on something of a mystery tour. And he was telling the story of a flight attendant he had come across.
Jenna was the flight attendant on that miserable trip. “Throughout that whole disaster, her smile, her willingness to take care of everybody on that small flight, asking ‘more ice, more drinks, anything else I can do?’”
As he waited at the baggage carousel, he sidled up anonymously to a young couple and prodded them for complaints, “Can you believe how long this luggage thing is taking?” They agreed but quickly mentioned Jenna. “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?” Munoz called that a watershed moment for him as he takes the controls at the world’s second-largest airline. “Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said.
“The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people. “If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.”
The details of the full story are almost certainly apocryphal. He relays that he ‘always seems to get’ seat 22A (as though it is outside his control). His example of a flight from hell is a 30 minute tarmac delay (something outside the control of the airline most likely) and a wait for a gate on arrival. Then an exaggerated delay for luggage. Yet with a happy ending.
But it’s a story with a point as he tried to motivate the people at United, telling them they make all the difference, and changing the culture in the process.
Nevermind that Jenna was apparently a flight attendant on a regional jet, and thus not an employee of United but of one of their contract United Express carriers. Nonetheless, Katerina made me think of Jenna — both United Express flight attendants — and how they remind me of Nancy, a brand new mainline flight attendant in 1982.
United brought back ‘the Friendly Skies’ without friendly people, describing their features and benefits as ‘flyer friendly’.
The actual friendly part doesn’t really cost more, but it’s much harder to create a culture — and the incentives — which foster it. Flight attendants can be there primarily for your safety or can provide an experience of true hospitality. In the U.S. outstanding crews are generally great by virtue of their own choice and drive rather than company culture. Fixing that is the part that not only doesn’t cost money, it can be less expensive, but it’s hard to get there once you’ve lost it.
It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to United. American has Taylor Tippett but it also has the flight attendants who frequent my comments section.
There may be something to Nancy, Jenna and Katerina being new and that being more likely (at least the case with both Jenna and Katerina) at a regional carrier. Perhaps there’s a clue to be found there.