The Dao incident was a life-changing event at United. While the airline may not have been hurt financially by the unforced error, it is causing a change in culture.
CEO Oscar Munoz has just spent three weeks in various United hubs, speaking to gate agents and customer service representatives (CSRs) on empowerment.
In a speech to gate agents at Chicago O’Hare, Munoz laid out seven major “pain points” that have hampered operations.
Breakdown in Communication Between Organizations
Communication breakdowns often occur between the various groups necessary to make a flight go out on time and make an airline run smoothly. As an example, Munoz pledged to work with zone controllers, gate agents, ramp agents, pilots, and FAs to provide realtime information and ensure they work together as one team.
Overbooking has been a perennial frustration, especially as default compensation amounts were greatly reduced after the merger with Continental while flights continue to be oversold. Munoz said United will address this from two angles. First, United will no generally longer overbook flights within two hours (it is now a 90-minute limit). Second, United will soon introduce reverse auctions that will allow customers willing to bump easily identify themselves, alleviating stress at the gate.
Issuing Customer Compensation
Issuing compensation is a lengthy and burdensome process. United is working to make the actual processing of customer service complaints and issuing denied boarding credit be far more speedy.
One reason gate agents often seemed reticent to help is because audits are frequent. In the Smisek era, gate agents who provided too much compensation were punished. This has created a culture of fear and translated into poor customer service. Audits will be reduced.
Aero is the front-end system United airport staff use to process flights and rebook customers. Many employees have complained about its speed and functionality that hampers the efficiency of handling customers and delays. I can certainly add that it takes a ridiculous amount of time to rebook compared to the old fastair system prior to the Continental merger.
Better Training + Staffing
Supervisors feel they have not received proper training and that trickles down to all airport staff. United will provide better training on both the technical side and stress management side. This will also help United correct staffing levels.
In order to save on labor costs, United contracts out many positions at airports around the company. That includes the people who check you in or tag your bags at some airports. It includes caterers and cleaners as well. And of course contracted flight crews flying under United Express. Munoz promised to hold these contractors to the same high standards that United holds its own workers too.
Progress is always slow and Munoz closed his speech by emphasizing that changes will be incremental. That’s the nature of any change at an organization as large as United. I’d add one more item to the list above, and that would be the whole Basic Economy problem. I’ll lay out the issues in a subsequent post, but despite best efforts to warn people what purchasing a Basic Economy fare really means, it has still provided a major stress point for gate agents.
But at least United is listening to its gate agents, many who have been with the company for decades. Even small changes can help operations run far more efficiently. Delegating more power to gate agents to handle issues will build mutual trust and benefit consumers. When airport staff is empowered to help without fear of being punished for generosity, we will undoubtedly witness better customer service. Proper training can ensure the right balance is struck between being generous and too generous.