For all the noteworthy progress United Airlines had made over the last year, it just takes one bad story to sink the ship. We may have our story…
Imagine you are a young mother and step onto a 14-hour flight from Sydney, Australia to San Francisco and find your seat in business class. Your eight-month-old is crying and you do your best to calm him down. But he won’t stop. Naturally, he annoys other passengers who complain to the flight attendant.
Now imagine that the flight attendant approaches you and sees you doing everything in your power to soothe your child. But instead of offering a hand or gently asking if she can help, she angerly berates you.
She cites the “rule book” in defense of her position that a baby cannot cry for more than five minutes (seriously) and marches you back to economy class to further berate you, insisting that you leave your seat. When asked to produce the rule book, the FA condescendingly laughs and claims she cannot produce it due to the lack of internet…on a flight that has internet. She reminds you that that “many airlines” do not allow children in business class, insinuating that you do not belong there. Signaling to the rest of the cabin, the FA states that fellow passengers have been complaining. Other passengers sheepishly deny this. You re-take your seat in business class ashamed and humiliated. Paying $28 to access internet, you tell your story on Facebook.
Sadly, this is a true story. Thankfully, though, our story does not end here. Other FAs came to the aide of the passenger and the captain even came over to apologize. A team of United representatives met the woman and her son at San Francisco with profuse apologies and a full refund of her ticket.
Addressing the incident, United has empathically stated that children are welcome in business class:
Young families are welcome on our flights, including in business class. We are continuing to review the incident internally and the flight attendant is being held out of service pending the investigation.
United handled the aftermath well. Their action was swift and decisive and frankly praiseworthy.
But why was that flight attendant so nasty in the first place? Why did she make up those rules? Will there be any consequences for this?
I don’t want to turn this into a union-bashing piece, so let’s just assume she won’t lose her job. And perhaps she should not if this is her first incident (kudos to United, though, for pulling her from service). But we see a pattern with the “few bad apples” at United. So often, they’ve been doing the job so long and they are practically unchangeable. Good luck trying to bring about any improvements in behavior. One of the pillars of United’s core4 program is caring. What this FA did is the absolute opposite of caring.
The solution is not easy. FAs cannot be suddenly radically transformed, especially through HR programs and memos. I would love to see other factors besides seniority play a role in whether a FA is able to hold a line on a longhaul route, but that is unrealistic. Individual consequences for these types of customer service failures are sadly not likely to ever occur in the U.S. airline industry.
Thus, the only path forward I see is if FAs “counsel” fellow FAs. Other FAs—those who get it, those who care—must be the ones to quickly correct their fellow FAs, without fear of reprisal if their seniority is less.
Think how other FAs and the captain on this flight diffused the situation. The passenger shares, however, that the offending FA remained rude for the rest of the flight. Some FAs are incorrigible…they are only human. But sometimes we are rude when we don’t mean it. Sometimes we are tone deaf without malice intent. Encouraging FAs to speak up and correct their flying partner might reduce this sort of behavior. It’s worth a shot.
I’m glad United has made clear that children are welcome in business class. I’m also glad the passenger was refunded the price of her ticket, which is very generous compensation. But most of all, I’m happy that the captain and other FAs did not succumb to groupthink but stood up for the young mother trying to soothe her crying baby.
How else might United realistically root out the bad apples?