United Airlines gets a lot of bad press and rightfully so – it has torpedoed the MileagePlus program on both the earnings and redemption side and has severely cut back on in-flight services, particularly in the forward cabin of domestic flights. But, a Huffington Post story demonstrates the power of going the extra mile…and also why the chain of command must sometimes be breached.
Here’s the summary: boy gets sick on a school trip to China, his condition worsens, and he is hospitalized. Being an emergency, his mother travels to China without a visa and has only 72 hours to transit. With just hours left on her visa, boy finally gets clearance to return home but must travel with oxygen tank. Problem: airlines require 48 hours to approve travel with oxygen.
Low-level United staff says that their hands are tied, so the school principal googles UA execs and fires off e-mails. Joseph Chia, the Regional Director for United’s Airlines Asia-Pacific operations, answers back almost immediately. No problem with the oxygen and the kid, his mother, and evacuation nurse get a free upgrade to business class. He writes a thank you note and CEO Jeff Smisek personally responds.
Here’s part of his story:
It may be hyperbole to call this a life and death situation – but it may have been. I rolled restlessly in bed. Do I know anyone in the airline business? Can my U.S. Senator help? (At 2:00 a.m.!) I won’t elaborate, but after 20 minutes of web browsing, I found the names of the top five or six United Airlines executives in the world. I also found an email address for a low level employee that hinted at the standard email format for United. At 2:32 a.m. I sent urgent emails to four United Airlines executives, including Jeff Smisek, the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the $3 billion company. Talk about a stab in the dark! I had no idea if my guess at email addresses was accurate, and I surely didn’t expect any top executives for United (or any other major corporation) to open an email from out of the blue in the middle of the night. Knowing this was an exercise in futility, I waited for Senator Charles Schumer’s office to open in the morning. I went to work, my concern growing deeper with every passing hour.
At about 8:00 a.m. my wife called me at school. “You got a call from a guy at United Airlines,” she said. “He said he also emailed you.” The call and email were from Joseph Chia, a man I later identified as the Regional Director for all United Airlines Asia-Pacific operations. He had called from Hong Kong. I called him back and the rest is history. This wonderful man approved oxygen for the flight. He also reserved three business class seats for our student, her mother and the evacuation nurse. United officials greeted our entourage at the Shanghai airport to facilitate boarding and were awaiting the plane in Newark to coordinate transport to NYU Medical Center.
Simply amazing. My cold emails at 2:30 a.m., sent to “guessed” addresses, reached someone who set this in motion. Two days later, still shaking my head in gratitude and disbelief, I sent emails again to the four executives, thanking them profusely for the astonishing response. I had no idea who actually got the message and acted. To say I was curious was an understatement. In mere moments I got my answer. “Thanks, Steve. Joseph, great job!” Signed: Jeff.
Jeff Smisek, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. Now that’s hands-on leadership! Had I not asked, I would have never known of his involvement.
Friendly Skies indeed! Fly United. I will, whenever possible.
It is a nice feel-good story which I will not denigrate. Joseph Chia deserves special praise for “never letting rules overrule” and even Jeff Smisek, a rumored blackberry addict, did well in writing back the customer personally.
But the underlying issue here is that it often pays to circumvent the chain of command. Here, the principal did try to use conventional channels first, but the only thing that got results was e-mailing the top brass. Certainly if everyone did this nothing would get resolved, but I find it pays very much indeed to e-mail someone higher up on the food chain. This is particularly salient with United, where front end staff have been severely limited into their authority to bend rules since the merger.
Do not take this as an advocation to contact Jeff Smisek over your delayed flight or lost baggage, but if you are not getting anywhere, Google plus the airline’s list of executive officers may be your friend.