Road Warriors, I Take My Hat Off To You

Posted by on January 8, 2009 10:34 am
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I travel occasionally for business, but when I do it is typically long distance and rather complicated. Take this trip for instance. I’m traveling from Kansas City to Chicago and catching a flight from Chicago to Shanghai China. Then I’m getting on a plane from Shanghai to Shenzhen where I am to arrive on Wednesday evening and go to a small suburb of the grand metropolis of Shenzhen called Guanlan. I stay in Guanlan for night and then move to Kaiping for two days. From there back to Guanlan for the weekend and a few days of meetings throughout Guangdong province and then finally back to Shanghai on Wednesday, where I have 4 meetings and a supplier audit to conduct during the first production run. Once all the good things are done, I travel back to the US.

Now that you have an idea of the travel plans let me explain why I take my hat off to the road warriors. I typically fly United Airlines. This trip has shown to me that malady that is putting one of the United State’s carriers on what I call my list of “Who will follow the Automotive Industry down the financial toilette.

If you are a regular follower of this BLOG you know my opinion of the Automotive bailout; No, don’t do it because it is bad for the unions, the management, the dealerships and for America in general. Now I sit here in Row 37 seat H (a nice aisle seat) and wonder how one airline can tumble so quickly out my graces as United has. I flew to China last in May and June (yeah, twice in two months, gotta love it) and it was an OK flight. But let me put you in my shoes for the last 24 hours.

I left Kansas City of UA7621 at 7:44AM to an ON TIME departure. United has new fuel policies and since flights don’t take off till they are granted a landing slot, it usually is good enough. Our Captain, a very experienced and knowledgeable woman who takes her job seriously received instructions to “flare” her approach (slow it down and basically waste fuel). Because Chicago had a snow removal issue on January 6, 2009. Well, to all of us onboard it was a predictable event. Snow in January at O’Hare. Sorry, did not take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

So, our Captain hits the regulation’s edge and notifies us that due to the delay in clearing the runways we were going to have to refuel in Peoria. She executed a perfectly smooth landing in Peoria and over an hour later we were fueled and deiced and headed for the 45 minute flight to Chicago. The original arrival time in Chicago was 8:55AM we landed at 11:30AM. That was just too bad, because my Shanghai flight left at 10:18 right on time. The cause listed on the screen was, Weather Related Delay. The effect, no out of pocket cost for UAL since weather delays are acts of God and thus you cannot hold the airline responsible.

The reality was that UAL gambled with the weather and lost, and their loss cost them nothing, but to the six or so of us making international connections had to spend the night in Chicago at our own cost. You call it weather, no cost. You call it, poor planning of a predictable event by airline operations, and UAL has to pay for all those hotels.

So I tried to get my bag off the international flight and requested my bags at 11:30 AM and I was told there would a one to two hour delay in finding and delivering the bag to me at Carrousel 7 of Terminal 1. I walked down to Baggage claims and told them I was waiting for my bag and that I’d be back in a couple of hours. I went to get something to eat and came back at 2:30. I was told that the bag was still not retrieved that it might be another hour. I asked at that point, If I could just leave it and not worry about it. I was told that once the bag is requested it comes off their system and it may, or may not make my connection in the morning. I was further told that if the bag was not out by midnight then it would be put back on the plane as originally scheduled.

I asked why I was not informed of this when I first placed my original request. The woman behind the counter simply said, that Customer Service (where I had placed the original request) does not care and they should know that in all of the O’Hare operations for UAL there is only 1 person assigned to retrieve bags, but that they are also there to help get the international bags moved from point a to point b at the airport, in addition to another person. Notice the discrepancy? I was first told that UAL only assigned one person, but now there are 2 people, with one of the partly responsible for the luggage requests.

I expressed my frustration, because now I could not go to the hotel. I need to see the luggage issue all the way through or I may spend 2 weeks in china in my travel clothes (let me tell you I travel comfortably so I don’t think my suppliers nor customers would like to see me in my blue jeans and jean shirt – for 2 weeks. Then I turned around and started to leave the area to go wait for my bag and it hit me. When I checked in at MCI I asked for an envelop to hold my tickets, you know the nice blue folder that holds the tickets that probably costs in volume all of $0.01 or less a piece? I was told that they did not have them in Kansas City any more because UAL Operations in KC had to decide on folders or people and they got rid of the folders.

I made it back to carrousel 7 of terminal 1, sat down and opened my lap top and continued to read, make business phone calls and keep myself busy so I would not feel the disappointed anger I felt. No, not for what you may be thinking, but because United is the last of the Great Air Icons of America. Trans World Airlines is gone. Braniff is Gone. Pan Am is gone. Will United follow? My prediction at this point is a resounding, Yes! The death blow will come from inside their own ranks, from the people who make a living and pay their bills because they work for the Airline. It amazes me; what is this obsession with killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs? At 5:30PM the bag came out, some 6 hours from when I originally requested it. Had anyone taken 5 minutes to explain to me what set of events I was setting in motion, I would have stopped by a CVS drugstore and bought deodorant, aftershave, toothbrush and toothpaste and a new razor and I would have been working from the hotel.

Move forward in time to 9:30 AM on January 7, 2009 and I’m standing at row 37 ailse seat H talking to two fellow travelers and the one and only friendly flight attendant. She proceeded to enlighten us on the changes at UA. She told us that when TED was started, they had many things to sell, but that as Flight Attendants they decided it was too much to ask of them to sell the products, and they just simply broke the seal, and put it back in place and nothing sold. She was literally proud of the fact that the Flight Attendants had cause the idea to fail. Granted I do think she was bragging and I do think that she may have done it, and some others but I don’t believe that it was done in a coordinated fashion. But it still highlights the point of the attitude of a tenured employee who thinks they can’t lose their job so they become minimalists – I will put forth minimal effort.. Sad.

I became enthralled with the topic, thinking of the Blog I would write, and asked about other changes. She mentioned that now UA was charging for alcoholic beverages on trans pacific flights and that she hated having to make change so she would not load much on the cart so she didn’t have to deal with it (was the comment from another flight attendant who joined the conversation). I laughed, but it was easy because I typically won’t drink wine or beer on the way out, but I do drink some with the meals on the way back.

I asked if they were going to switch to credit cards or anything like it to make it easier on the business traveler. She said that she could not imagine carrying that monstrosity of a machine, and there wasn’t enough room on the drink cart for the machine. So customers would just have to take the free drinks or bring cash. Is there any “friendliness” left in the Friendly Skies?

Competition for the American Airways is still controlled by the Government and no true international competition is allowed in the Airline Industry. International agreements control which airlines cover which routes and the routes are viciously guarded by all. In that way, on international airline can compete for customers in the United States. So, the airlines enjoy protectionism at home and internationally by the lack of competition on most routes.

Protectionism is delaying the internal and inevitable deathblow that will add United Airlines, the Friendly Skies, to the list headed by Pan American Airlines, Trans World Airlines, and Branif. When the deathblow comes, it will blamed on the economy and on poor management, but the reality is that the airlines suffer from a strangle hold of minimalist tenured employees that are as bad for airlines as they are for education. Employees who have no fire nor drive left in them to improve the company, but are just biding their time looking for the age of retirement and hope that they can do the least work between now and that day; they will cause the death of UA, mark my words.

At every company in the Free Market system there is a give and take in both management and employees. Management has the responsibility for plotting the course of the company, to develop products and services and to ensure that the company prospers and profits from the investments made. Employees have a responsibility to give an honest days work for an honest day’s pay. To accomplish this, the employees bring their work ethic as well as their ideas and knowledge and together – management and employees – do the best they can to grow the company. Granted there were and still are abuses on both sides and those have to be kept in check. But in essence if employees take the minimalist approach, they will consume from the company, and they will not put anything back; and that’s what I say at United Airlines both in Kansas City and O’Hare as well as on the International flight. All people I spoke to had many years of seniority and felt very comfortable in their jobs. Yet there was a glimmer of hope, but it was in the regional airline, flight UA7621 from MCI to ORD, they cared! The Captain was greatly concerned about the delay, yet she told the truth about what we could expect so we could begin to make plans. The Flight Attendant was greatly concerned and took the time on the ground at Peoria to find out the critical connections and contacted operations to provide us with the answers we sought. Two, low tenured employees, who gave back to the company rather than taking away from it the way the other’s I’ve encountered on the first leg of this trip.

I was, actually encouraged by the flight attendants on UA835 to file complaints about the service on the airline. I will send a comment to http://www.ualsurvey.com/ but it will not be what they expect, it will be a request to read and take this BLOG to heart. The company is hurting itself from within. The minimalist employees (and I’ve encountered roughly 15 people of which I counted 2 flight attendants, 1 Customer Service Representative, and 2 Baggage Customer Service Reps; 5 in total out of 15 or 33% of them fall into the minimalist category. That is a true internal force to recon with; that will distract management or they will bring the strangle hold on the Goose to a death grip and United’s employees will follow the fate of Trans World Airlines and Pan American two of the worlds greatest Airline Icons the world has ever known, and remembers fondly.

By the way, how many employees still earn a paycheck from Trans World or Pan Am? Ah, the answer is not many, if any. Is that a desirable model to follow? I say no, how about you? If your answer is No also, then do UA a favor and pay attention and do fill out their survey at www.UALsurvay.com. And, if you can, try to make sure you get to the root cause of the issue and complain loudly and often about it. Let the UAL management know how their people are representing the image of the company to the public who choses to buy tickets or to bring up the next web page and place the order for the seat to fly to China, Indonesia, Mexico, Europe or wherever, with other international carriers who focus on Customer Service affordably.

More to come, on a variety of International topics of conservatism.

Respectfully Submitted,
The Lee’s Summit Conservative
UA835 ORD to Shanghai.