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United Service

On April 16, 2017 The Wall Street Journal published an article "Behind United Airlines’ Fateful Decision to Call Police" about the recent debacle on United Airlines where a passenger was injured and dragged out of the aircraft for failing to give up his seat.

In the article the author highlighted that the airline, and the airline industry in general, is deeply ‘policy focused’, with employees fearful to step “outside the lines” if the “book” says otherwise:

“Deviating from the rules is frowned upon; employees can face termination for a foul-up, according to people familiar with the matter. At United, this has helped create a rules-based culture where its 85,000 employees are reluctant to make choices not in the “book,” according to former airline executives, current employees, and people close to United.”

As a frequent flier and hospitality consultant I am continually amazed at the airlines and their “policies”, because it seems that there is not a single policy designed to be customer centric.

Don’t get me wrong: as a manager I understand the need for rules and policies to keep our daily lives from becoming chaotic and to provide guidance. I am also a strong believer in systems and procedures for consistency. However, first and foremost companies are in business to serve a customer, which means at some point the policies must also benefit the customer if the company is to survive. I also realize that the primary responsibility of airline staff onboard is passenger safety, so we must respect that and follow certain rules to keep us all safe--but none of that precludes the use of common sense.

As of April 18, this year alone I have traveled on 13 trips by air over 49 days to 24 cities and 2 countries for a total of 52,835 miles. I am what one may call a ‘road warrior’ (and a small business owner), yet I am constantly subjected to ‘policies’ that seem to be in place to punish the few abusers out there, with no consideration for the many travelers and many, many frequent travelers who are simply trying to live their lives: go on vacation, return to their families, run a business, attend a meeting, avoid bad weather, make their child’s play or make it home in time for dinner with their family if they can. Yet we are often treated like we are trying to ‘get one over’ on someone.

In the aftermath of the incident, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is promising a customer-centric culture. He released a statement alongside the airline's first-quarter earnings report, saying the company is "more determined than ever to put our customers at the center of everything we do." I am very curious how he will do this after decades of losing sight of their customers’ needs, a focus on “policy”, and lack of training on critical thinking and positive communication.

In light of this incident and the CEO’s response, I am reminded of my own experiences on a competitor airline who have very rarely acted in a customer-centric manner to help me get on earlier flights, change a ticket, etc. However, each time a customer service agent did make a customer-centric decision that benefitted me and did not interfere with any other customer, they followed it up with a cautionary comment like “Don’t tell anyone or I'll get in trouble”.

The seemingly unspoken uniform accessory for most airline employees.

Once, as I was profoundly thanking a service agent over the phone (because with his help I was able to get home 5 hours early) I commented that I would give him a ‘shout out’ on Twitter as the best customer service agent ever. The agent replied, “Your appreciation is enough for me. Please don’t write anyone about this, post it on Twitter, or notify my supervisor or I will be fired for helping you. What I did is not in line with our policy but it is the right thing to do.”

As a customer with premium status, that statement dumbfounds me – he would be fired for doing the right thing for a customer!?

As a hospitality consultant, I am amused because it keeps companies like this in a vicious cycle of trying to continuously gain new customers because they lose existing customers due to policies lacking common sense. Anecdotally, I received a call from the same airline on that very day inquiring as to why my travel spending had decreased with them and if there was anything they could do to improve from a service standpoint. When I called back to tell them my experience and why my company dollars have gone elsewhere, I received the same “it’s our policy” statement. So for me, it's simple: when I can, I continue to seek other airlines that may value my business more.

A vicious cycle indeed. One wonders how many dollars are spent on marketing, advertising, and now public relations for United Airlines (now estimated to be over $800 million by branding experts) when a simple investment in reviewing their "company policies”—coupled with focused employee training to foster a new customer-centric company culture--would be much more likely to keep customers loyal and possibly even create “Raving Fans”, resulting in an even larger marketing base. Hello, Virgin America!

Even United’s CEO commented on the idea that employees lack what they need to allow them to make common sense decisions. Mr. Munoz called the event a ‘system failure’ and acknowledged that United hasn’t provided its front-line managers and supervisors with ‘the proper tools, policies, procedures that allow them to use their common sense.”

United has become the brunt of jokes and social media memes such as this one.

Take my competitor airline for a moment, who has a ‘policy’ that one cannot change flights on the same day (or within three hours of departure even) unless the ticket is nearly exactly the same: for example, a connecting ticket can only be exchanged for another connecting ticket even if there is a direct flight available sooner or vice versa. This has happened to me on numerous occasions: arriving to the airport sooner than I had expected when I originally booked my flight. Each time, I was not permitted to make a change and the earlier flights I hoped to be on flew with 20+ empty seats.

My question to all airlines is this: “Why would you not want to continue to reinforce loyalty with an existing customer (and noted frequent flyer) by allowing changes like this if the gate agent or customer service agent has the common sense to make this decision for the benefit of the customer without affecting other customers' enjoyment?” Many times these agents have told me, “I don’t agree with it either, but it is our policy. I'm sorry I cannot help you.”

My other question is: “How could any employee ever think that the way the passenger was treated on United is okay or in line with company policy?” That should be the bigger question being asked, because this decision was beyond just “policy” is evidence of a complete communication failure about the company culture: its mission statement, governing values, and vision for the future. I would take it a step further and say United has lost its way from the famed airline of the 90's who famously noted personal service comes first.

I wonder how the earnings statements would look for airlines if they truly became customer-centric and understood the value of a lifetime customer? As a consultant who is customer focused, I want to help. Taken from our training program, G.R.A.C.I.O.U.S. Service, here is a beginning roadmap to a customer-centric workplace:

  • Genuine: encourage employees to be sincere with customers; avoid treating them like a number or cattle, as many airline queues feel like today.

  • Respect and Responsive: treat each other and your customers with respect. Allow responsiveness to come from the front line at the time of the customer contact. Provide the tools, resources, systems, guidelines, and training so that this can happen.

  • Anticipate: be anticipatory with customers. Anticipate their needs and look for ways to meet or exceed them.

  • Commit to self-improvement: always encourage and look for ways to continuously improve or innovate for the benefit of the customer AND the company.

  • Immediacy: there must be a sense of urgency and immediacy to actions involving a customer. Especially where travel is concerned, a few minutes may make or break a customer experience and enable them to re-route or make a connecting flight. I once stood for 10 minutes waiting for two ticketing agents to stop complaining to each other about what an awful day it was as I was trying to get home after being rerouted and delayed. Lo and behold, during those ten minutes, the seat I had on hold became unavailable. The ticketing agent was shocked and I was furious. I was forced to spend the night and take the next available flight the following morning.

  • Other point of view: teach critical thinking skills surrounding “knowing your audience”. Get into the mind of the customer. What is their point of view? How are they feeling? What is their perspective? What do they need? How can you help?

  • Service commitment: a true commitment to service comes from fostering relationships. This can only be done by having a true commitment from the top down. The Ritz-Carlton readily shares their ‘gold standards’; however, I am sure they realize that it takes intense commitment to achieve their famed level of service; knowing how to do it and being committed to it are two different things.

Like the rest of the country, I will watch and wait to see if United really can turn their service culture around. It’s not easy to do, and with 85,000 employees the investment will be significant. If they do manage to achieve it, it will be a wonderful case study on success and one I personally would like to see. If they don’t, they will have simply provided me with a continuing example of how not to treat customers for our service training seminars.

One last tip for anyone wondering about his or her own company service culture. The best way to determine your culture is to listen: listen to employees, listen to customers, and listen to daily staff interactions. Listen to the words they use, the stories they share, and their body language. Are they communicating pain and stagnation or are they communicating a positive attitude, excitement, and energy? Listen to how decisions are made and listen to the thought process behind these decisions. This is your first step toward a future of success--or failure.


Whitney Reid Pennell, president of the RCS Hospitality Group, is a celebrated management consultant, educator, and speaker. RCS, the creators of Food and Beverage Service Boot Camp™, specializes in operations consulting, strategic planning, food and beverage management, and training programs for private clubs, fine dining restaurants, and luxury resorts and hotels. For more information, phone (623) 322-0773; or visit the RCS website at

#training #United #customerservice #policy #employeetraining #employeequalities #empoweremployees #inthenews #miscellaneous

Whitney Reid Pennell
 Founder & President

Whitney Reid Pennell is the founder and president of the award-winning RCS Hospitality Group (formerly Reid Consulting Services). She is a published author and widely praised seminar leader, with over 20 years of club operations management and consulting experience. 

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