Blame United's Culture Crisis

Jerry Chandler Want to know how United Airlines got into its present mess? Conventional wisdom has it that the carrier’s revolving door chief executive position is to blame. Then there’s the “greedy unions” theory. In my estimation, however, culture crisis has put the nation’s second biggest airline on w

By: Jerry Chandler

Want to know how United Airlines got into its present mess? Conventional wisdom has it that the carrier’s revolving door chief executive position is to blame. Then there’s the “greedy unions” theory. In my estimation, however, culture crisis has put the nation’s second biggest airline on what some believe to be the brink of oblivion.

While there are a lot of good, dedicated people working for United, those employees don’t take their cues from the same book, much less the same page.

The relationship between flight attendants and pilots presents a classic case in point. Their bickering hasn’t been confined to the back office. Quite the contrary. Once, on a flight to Denver, I witnessed a lead flight attendant lay into the captain over her duty hours. The exchange was heated, laced with epithets and in full view of a planeload of people.

On the other hand, employees at Frontier, Southwest and JetBlue the wunderkind of commercial aviation don’t engage in fraternal warfare. They work together, focusing on customer concerns. For example, in order to maintain a schedule, Southwest Airlines pilots help baggage handlers load bags on airlines.

Talk to human resources people at this new breed of carriers and they’ll tell you they’d rather hire an empathetic, motivated customer-service person sans any airline experience than a laid-off worker from one of the majors. The latter come with too much baggage.

At Southwest, Frontier and JetBlue, employees listen to one another. At United, they don’t. For example, management ignored objections to the blue/gray color scheme for the carrier’s aircraft. Too dark, said some pilots. On an overcast day, the aircraft were almost camouflaged. Bad news when you’re trying to see and avoid an airplane. UA brass thought blue/gray was strong and businesslike. The colors stayed.

Airlines can get away with corrosive conduct for a while. Ultimately, however, it cuts through and sears the very soul of an organization.

And so it did at United.

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