Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
Dear United: I Solved Your Problems

Dear United: I Solved Your Problems

January 25, 2016
Jamie Notter

Okay, I understand it may be hard to believe that I have solved the problems of United Airlines—and I admit fully that I know basically nothing about the details of running a huge airline, but hear me out.

United has obviously seen better days. There is a growing list of articles and blog posts documenting their woes, not to mention the chorus of unhappy customers ranting on social media, pretty much all the time. They're not the only airline to make people unhappy, of course, but they seem to be excelling in that department, and they also seem to be losing some market share, so the company has a real problem. The recent Bloomberg/Businessweek article, titled "United's Quest to be Less Awful," got me thinking about this, but I want to be really clear: this is not a "United Sucks" post.

I was a United flyer for many years. I do a decent amount of business travel--enough to have "status" with an airline, though certainly not as much as the top-tier business travelers (I never made it past United's Silver level). I live in the DC area, and with United's big hub at Dulles, it meant I could get lots of direct flights if I flew with them, so I did. And once I got the status, I didn't want to give up the perks, so I kept flying them. I didn't have too many horror stories, and I guess my expectations were set pretty low to begin with, so I never hated them.

But then I had a year where I didn't fly 25,000 miles, so I lost my status. It was like getting a divorce, actually, and suddenly I could "date" other airlines. Helloooooo Southwest! I had originally been annoyed by Southwest because it was filled with lots of non-business travelers. You know, the ones who don't "get" the process and slow things down. But the more I flew them, the more I figured out how it works. If you don't have status, you pay the extra $25 for "early bird" check in, so you're close enough to the front of the line to get your bag in the overhead, which is a top need for business travelers. If you are willing to pay the highest fare (business select), you can even be among the first 15 on the plane, so you get your bag up AND you're close to the front, saving you time (another top need). Of course I hit A-list status in about three or four months the first year I was flying them, and then I didn't have to pay the $25. Before the year was out I made it to A-List preferred (free wifi!), and I've been there ever since. I fly Southwest almost exclusively now, and I like it a lot. I am a loyal and happy customer.

But here's the deal. It's not the status perks that make the true difference here. The bottom line is that air travel is, at best, a necessary evil. With the exceptions of the captains of industry who get to fly global first class, flying on a plane is kind of gross. The seats are uncomfortable, the air is stale, and you always arrive tired, even though all you did was sit there. The perks don't change that, and telling jokes during the safety briefing doesn't change that, and free peanuts don't change that. Almost 2 million people fly EVERY DAY in the U.S., and they must do it safely and without increasing security risks. There is simply no way ANY airline is going to magically make that a wonderful experience.

So you know what does matter? Getting where you want to go, and being treated decently. It's basically about minimizing the inherent misery of air travel. Southwest does that really well. They get you where you want to go and they treat you decently. Not nickel-and-dime-ing you with bag fees is part of treating you decently. Their famous emphasis on fun and good customer service is treating you decently. Having captains come out and clean the cabin in order to turn the plane around quickly because it landed a bit late and they want to get back on schedule is treating you decently (and getting you where you want to go). Giving you your miles back when you have to cancel some award travel is treating you decently (United literally asked me to pay $200 this week to do that, even though we're having a blizzard). Southwest is all about minimizing the misery. And they're winning.

So how does Southwest accomplish that? I guess that's the multi-billion-dollar question. Part of the answer must certainly be wrapped up in their strategy. They were focused on "getting you where you want to go" from the beginning, and made strategic choices (like only using one airplane--the Boeing 737--for all their flights) that made delivering on that promise easier (see the case study on Southwest in the strategy classic, Blue Ocean Strategy for more on that). But I don't think the strategy piece at the heart (pun intended) of it. I think it's their culture. And I think it's United's culture that is driving their decline as well.

Consider this quote from a Business Journal article about United:

But the media still has it wrong about United Airlines (NYSE: UAL), which has just been passed by Delta Air Lines as the nation's second-largest carrier. What ails the current United Airlines is what ailed the pre-merger United and the pre-merger Continental. The cultures stank. There was little or no commitment from the top to do good work. And customer-facing employees at both airlines were burned out, overwhelmed or distracted as they absorbed the brunt of flyer dissatisfaction. Combining two wrongs can not and did not make anything right. It just made things worse.

Here's what I think this all really comes down to: the secret to making air travelers happy is ultimately about having happy and empowered employees to begin with. I know that sounds pollyanna-ish, but that is what will actually make the difference. Most of my experience is the same on every airline. The lines, the security checks, the seats, the ginger ale, the terminals, the Starbucks, the emergency exit rows, the 4 oxygen masks (put your own mask on first!)...some details will vary, but not enough to make a difference. But employees that connect personally to their work will make all the difference in the world, because that will make my travel a little less miserable. That will make the difference between feeling like I was treated decently, and feeling like I was exploited.

And at Southwest, connecting personally to your work and being empowered to take action is in the DNA of the enterprise. That is the secret that no one is getting here. When you create a culture that is built on the right genetic code, then much of both your strategy and implementation falls into place in ways that will befuddle competition. I bet United executives originally scoffed at Southwest's comedy-laden safety briefings. I can imagine them around the board table: "That can't be a driver of competitive advantage!" And they're right. It's not about the comedy. It's about employees who connect to their work in a way that reduces the misery of air travel.

From what I can tell from the outside, United seems to lack an intentional culture. In an interview this summer after Oscar Muñoz took over as CEO, he said that employees had been "allowed to be disengaged, disenchanted, and disenfranchised." Um, you don't "allow" someone to be disenfranchised. You disenfranchise them. And disenfranchised employees are never going to do what it takes to reduce the misery of air travel. They just aren't going to treat you decently. And ultimately, as United has discovered, they're not going to do what it takes to get you where you want to go (effectively, anyway).

So here's your solution, United. Be honest about what your current organizational genetic code really is. Stop trying to declare that things will be better. Stop trying to convince everyone that you're committed to quality and customer service and excellence and all that other PR/marketing crap. Start with the truth. Start by understanding the very nature of the organization that you've spent the last couple of decades creating, and from that point, figure out what you need to change in order to bring more power and connection and "enchantment" and engagement to the only people who are going to impact my experience with your company: your front line employees. They are waiting for you to take a stand and commit to a direction in your culture.

Create a culture that actually values the behaviors, approaches, and ideas that truly will drive your success. And then fire the people who can't live that culture every day. And hire people who understand and want to drive that culture. That will turn things around.

You're welcome.

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