Captain Denny Flanagan walks out of O’Hare Airport on May 26, 2016
On Tuesday May 31, Captain Denny Flanagan will pilot his final flight for United Airlines. The four-hour flight from Seattle to Chicago will be filled with family, press, and some of his most loyal fans. I will not be on that flight due to prior commitments, but I was able to secure a seat on a dry-run of sorts, another Seattle to Chicago flight earlier this week that was Denny’s second-to-final flight. He flies from Chicago to Seattle on Monday and then one final time back to Chicago on Tuesday.
As is his style, Captain Denny approached the gate just prior to boarding and immediately asked the gate agent if he could use the loudspeaker. He welcomed everyone, introduced himself, and delivered a brief synopsis of the flight plan, mentioning that we would be experiencing some poor weather over the Dakotas but still expected an early arrival into Chicago. Sometimes he will joke that it is his very first flight, then after a long pause…of the day.
With a twinkle in his eye that somehow reminds me how ol’ St. Nick would probably do it, he scoped out the gate area for children. Finding a young family with a four-year-old boy and six-year-old girl, he knelt down and presented each of the children with flight wings. Their grins were wide, but the smiles on their parent’s faces were even wider. With Denny, it is always the little things.
I first met Captain Denny by happenstance, about a decade ago on a flight from Chicago to LA. Here was a captain who stood by the passenger door and greeted every person as they boarded. Ever the professional, he always wore his jacket and hat, even when it was vogue for pilots to leave the hat at home in protest of then CEO Glen Tilton. Each passenger in first class received a handwritten note expressing gratitude for flying United. ATC Communications on Channel 9 were always available on Captain Denny’s flights and he often invited passengers to tune in for additional commentary.
Both Flyertalk1 and Flyertalk2 centered around Captain Denny – a chance for aviation enthusiasts to fly together with a captain who who set the standard on customer service. I fondly recall those party flights, in which we essentially took over the first class cabin and spent most of the flight on our feet chatting with one another.
Just after Flyertalk2 at Chicago ORD in 2011 – Photo courtesy of Friendly Skies
Then there were other little touches – Captain Denny would order pizza or hamburgers for his passengers when a long flight delay was encountered (out of his own pocket). If there were pets in the hold, he would snap a picture of the animal during his pre-flight inspection and then find the owner onboard and provide calming assurances and photographic evidence that the pet was comfortable.
Who is this guy? Is he good to be true?
You may be tempted to think that, like this is a PR stunt or this is the gregarious guy that everyone rolls their eyes at for having too much team spirit. But this is not the case. The FAs who work with Denny love him. The first officers he flies with love him too. And let me tell you about the passengers…
Captain Denny with United Purser Michael Collins in 2011 – Photo courtesy of Friendly Skies
I cannot think of someone who is a better brand advocate for United than Captain Denny. Day in and day out, every flight I have flown with him (more than a dozen) and apparently every flight he pilots, this is just the way he is. He makes people happy to fly United (maybe because he is happy to fly for United).
And now just days shy of his 65th birthday he is retiring. Captain Denny doesn’t seem down about being forced to retire while still in his prime. Even for someone who loves his job like few others, being away from family becomes taxing. The long nights and jetlag will not be missed. He proudly exclaims that he is looking forward to starting a new career next month, “Sleeping next to my wife each night.” But there will be other opportunities as well. United would be foolish not to keep him onboard in some capacity.
Even these last months were unexpected, though. With United retiring most of its 757-200 fleet, it appeared that Captain Denny would have to go on reserve and wait out his retirement at home. His only chance was to switch to the “Continental side” (even post-merger, Continental pilots can only fly ex-Continental planes and United pilots can only fly legacy United planes), meaning going from 757-200s with Pratt-Whitney engines to 757-300s with Rolls Royce engines. That required retraining and with just a handful of months before mandatory retirement, retraining did not seem like it was going to happen.
But Captain Denny had his own Easter miracle. Training was held over Easter weekend and he contacted the flight instructor and said, “If someone cancels at the last minute, call me.” Someone did cancel and Denny was on the next plane to Denver, receiving a three month reprieve to his beloved job. He never flew for the money.
Ironically, Denny has spent his final months meeting all new FAs on the former Continental side and flying an aircraft he never flew in his career with United prior to now. All in a day’s work. He continues to inspire.
Just yesterday United released a video about a young man named Robert who Denny inspired to become a pilot seven years earlier on a flight just like I have described above–
One time Captain Denny and I flew from Chicago to Philadelphia together. Totally by chance. Never forgetting a face, Denny caught sight of me in the gate area and promptly walked up to greet me by name. He told me he would be in Philadelphia for a couple days and I suggested we have dinner.
Dining at my favorite Italian restaurant in Center City, La Baia on Lombard Street, Denny and I discussed life and I came to appreciate him even more. A principled man who truly did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk. And he insisted upon picking up the check. Even conceding that I was just a law school student at the time, I invited him…it was incumbent upon me to pick up the bill. But he did, and so fast there was no time to protest. Generous to a fault indeed.
A couple days ago after we had arrived in Chicago, he suggested we sit down and chat. Both of us had eaten onboard so we sat down at a Starbucks and began discussing family, marriage, children, retirement…life. It was a deep conversation and a beneficial one too. Denny and his wife run a farm outside Cleveland for rescued animals and he even gave me some great pointers on home repair and gardening. He seems to be a jack of all trades.
Not everyone loves Denny Flanagan. He has wrestled with those who view his actions as a threat to union solidarity and those resistant to any form of institutional change. But he has won over many skeptics. After 9/11 many United pilots were furloughed and Denny had a simple idea for how he could get them back: win customers back with superb customer service.
He designed and created “trading” cards for the 757 he flew that detailed all the specs of the aircraft. His plan was to “autograph” them for children, giving them a better flight experience and encouraging their parents to fly United again when they found the cards lying around at home. The cards were so popular they expanded to all mainline aircraft and became a staple of flying United.
But just months into the program United declared bankruptcy and it appeared the program would be short-lived. It was not – Denny encouraged his fellow pilots to contribute out-of-pocket in solidarity with their furloughed colleagues and the program survived and continues to this day, a testament to his effort to rally others to his cause.
Will there be someone to pick up the mantle for Captain Denny? Well, there is no replacement for him but I have encountered many pilots who have been inspired by him and now act as he acted. Maybe Robert mentioned above will one day continue Denny’s legacy of service.
I already shared about my MillionMiler flight experience with Captain Denny and the recurring theme is a man who loves his job and is filled with joy. He taught me to be more joyful and that good customer service starts with genuine concern and a smile. I now run my own travel consulting firm and whenever I want to rip the head off a difficult client, I think of Denny…or at least try to.
Thank you Captain Denny for the great memories and thank you for your friendship. Best wishes in your new life ahead.
I have many pictures with Captain Denny, but this one (despite the over-exposure) is just as good as any — taken just two days ago.