A United captain failed a crucial loyalty test during the extended delay of a United flight in Canada earlier this week.
I wrote about the incident here, working through the the timeline of events to argue that United handled a difficult situation about the best it could. It’s not like any airline has a spare 777-200 sitting around with a spare crew and baggage handlers ready to go and several extra mechanics plus parts just waiting for an aircraft door malfunction in remote Canada. Once United realized the frozen door problem could not be fixed by local mechanics, it dispatched a rescue aircraft as quickly as possible.
But onboard, something else transpired that shows a far deeper problem at United than an unintended mechanical delay.
Per the Wall Street Journal, as passengers became more agitated, the captain threw United CEO Oscar Munoz under the boss:
At one point the captain announced Mr. Munoz’s email address over the loudspeaker. “Send him an email right now and tell him how mad you are,” passenger Sonjay Dutt, a 36-year-old professional wrestler from Northern Virginia, recalls the captain announcing.
Really? Is this how an employee should treat his boss? Encouraging the passengers to express anger at something that is beyond the control of the airline or CEO? Does venting to Oscar Munoz suddenly fix the aircraft or warm up the shivering passengers onboard?
Captain’s Fault or United’s Fault?
I defended United over the incident, but perhaps I need to rethink that if the captain is going to assign blame to United himself. Maybe the problem wasn’t a weather-driven problem but a sloppy mechanical problem. I don’t want to believe that, because the facts suggests otherwise, but if a captain is simply going to assume responsibility…
This sub-story captures my attention because it gets to the heart of United’s struggles over the last decade. What does the airline have to do truly win the loyalty of its employees? I fly Lufthansa enough to know that the pilots may strike, but they would never trash their CEO over the loudspeaker. To what end? That doesn’t solve the problem. All it represents is a weak attempt by the pilot to pacify the angry passengers.
Of course the passengers were angry and cold. But why not just let them know that United was assembling an army of personnel to come rescue them? Why not parrot the company line that United was doing everything in its power to resolve the situation as quickly and safely as possible?
Perhaps the captain should have demanded that the airport officials go rouse a few immigration officials from bed so at least the passengers could deplane to a heated terminal. Or at least something more constructive than directing passengers to tell the CEO “how mad you are.”
The issue is not the captain’s piloting skill, but his PR skills. I know, I know. Easy for me to attack a pilot from the comfort of my armchair thousands of miles away when I did not have to deal with 250 angry passengers. So noted.
But still, when you encourage passengers to express anger, they get angry. Then they blame you, the airline, the CEO…they blame everyone. Nothing is solved. The situation merely becomes worse. And it made the Wall Street Journal.
Like every commentary I write, my opinion is subjective. But I hope you better understand why I chose to write about this nugget of information. It was not to attack the captain directly, but to expose a deeper problem at United that even pay raises and consecutive years of healthy profit have failed to overcome.
What do you think about the captain’s words? To other airline pilots, is it fair game to attack management in front of passengers?