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
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
And so it did at United.