United Airlines’ missed opportunity to move beyond platitudes

united airlinesThere’s been a little trouble over at United Airlines. But new CEO Oscar Munoz’s platitudinous email to frequent flyers makes it sound like everything’s great. He missed the opportunity to transform the airline and tell the truth about it.

United is the worst major U.S. airline, which, given the pathetic state of US air travel, is pretty awful. And the CEO just resigned under a cloud. In the last week we learned that:

  • The office of the federal prosecutor is examining whether United bribed the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with a flight for his convenience as it negotiated for landing slots at Newark airport.
  • CEO Jeff Smisek resigned, along with the company’s top spokesman and another executive. The departures were “connected to its own internal investigation” related to the federal probe, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Jeff Smisek’s severance package is worth $29 million.
  • Customer experience at United is awful. Skytrax surveys rank it 3 out of 10, the worst of any major airline. (American got a 4.)
  • 25% of United flights don’t land on time. This puts it ninth out of 134 domestic airlines, according to FlightStats.
  • Its reservation system is screwed up, generating canceled flights and computer failures, according to airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt.

But don’t worry. New CEO Oscar Munoz is on the case. Here’s his happy letter to frequent flyers like me. I’ve put the meaningless platitudes, weasel words, and passive voice in bold italics. My comments are the ones in brackets.

Subject: A message from new United CEO Oscar Munoz

Dear Joshua,

I was recently named the president and CEO of United® and would like to take a few moments of your time to introduce myself to you, our valued customer. [Please don’t ask how I got this job, that’s a little embarrassing].

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people. I want us to be your first choice for every trip you take, and we will put in the work needed to get there. [Everything is awesome around here! Pay no attention to our poor customer experience ratings.]

This goal can be achieved by delivering on three things that I believe are critical to any successful business. [Note the passive voice. No concrete indication of who will achieve this goal, or how.]

First, we must focus on our customers. Getting you to your destination, on schedule, can make or break your ability to succeed in a work endeavor or to hug a family member at an important moment. [I get it: air travel is important to you!] If our performance has not met your expectations, I want you to know I’m committed to learning how to better meet your needs and desires. [Yup. Customer service is bad. It’s an intractable problem that relates to our systems and our culture. But hey, I have a good attitude, so it’s bound to work out! At least I recognize that I have a lot to learn.]

Second, it’s all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose[Breaking news: a large company needs people to work together. I’m sure this sentence will get the unions to agree to anything Mr. Munoz says he needs.]

Third, this is a company and an industry that demands innovation. We are embracing the changes, and will continue to innovate with the goal of providing our customers better performance, service and products. [A shocking goal: United wants to get better!]

Above all, our passion for the safety of our customers and our people will be at the core of everything we do. [Wait. So that’s a fourth thing? I feel so much safer knowing you’ve got passion. This was obviously stuck in at the last minute because somebody in legal said it was necessary. NB: When you see the word passion, what follows is bullshit.]

My co-workers and I will work each and every day to earn your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and will keep listening to our customers to become the top-performing airline. [Perhaps you should settle for a more achievable goal, like not being the bottom-performing airline.] My goal is for you to be as proud to fly United as I am to lead United.

Thank you for flying United.

Oscar Munoz
President and CEO, United Airlines

Delta has transformed its customer service with a systemwide commitment to never cancel flights — that was hard. United’s email reflects no such commitments. Frequent flyers read business news; they know about the scandal, but the email doesn’t even hint at United’s problems. It’s insulting.

Indulge me: I want to fantasize for a moment. Imagine that United’s CEO sent an honest email about real change. How would you react to this?

Subject: Substantive changes at United Airlines will improve your flying experience

If you’re reading this, you’re a United frequent flyer. You probably read about the problems that led to the resignation of our former CEO Jeff Smisek and two other executives. On top of our weak ratings in customer experience and on-time performance, you’re wondering if you should stay a loyal customer.

I’m the new CEO, and I’m here to tell you things will be improving here at United. We recently came off a year that generated one billion dollars in profit, mostly due to low fuel prices. I’m going to plow that profit into improvements that will matter to you. In the next year expect to see:

  • A listening and measurement program that will pinpoint where we can make the most impactful improvements in customer experience. If you want to make suggestions, a link is here.
  • A new contract with our employees that provides training and incentives for improved customer service.
  • A $500 million investment in our reservation systems, which is central to improving the experience. We will develop the new system with a commitment to making it work with mobile devices, both for you and for our crew and other workers.
  • A sustained focus on redesigning how we work to generate an improved customer experience.
  • A special program that will make it safer to travel with delicate musical instruments.

As an indication of my commitment to you as the new CEO, my compensation and that of all my senior executives will be tied to improved customer experience. If we don’t get better, I don’t get paid.

In the next year, these investments will make our shareholders unhappy. We will be investing in improving your experience rather than returning capital to them. But we know that long-term, an improvement in customer experience will generate more value and profit than investing in buying back shares. So they’ll come around.

Thanks for your patience. It’s going to take a while, but things will get better, starting right now.

Oscar Munoz
President and Chief Customer Office, United Airlines

If only it were true.

Photo: Oscar Munoz via United Airlines

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  1. Whenever a company is facing a very obvious customer service problem, management should always think of the ‘mea culpa’ ad campaign Domino’s launched in 2010. Not only did it give customers a reason to revisit the brand, it put employees on notice that the company culture was changing and that old ways of doing business were no longer acceptable. People intuitively try to deflect blame but if management is serious about change, they have to admit they screwed up, give a clear direction and then stay accountable. And, as you have pointed out, it all starts with the clarity of the message.

  2. This is so awesome! You write exactly how I feel. In what Universe did that email make sense? People go around wondering why so much disruption is happening everywhere. United’s cluelessness and downright disregard for their loyal customers’ intellect is part of the puzzle. PS: I love the last bullet on your version – that nod to gentle humor could’ve spoken volumes.

  3. Sim-shite is an arse flavoured toilet cup. I personally know of one situation where he tried to have a captain fired for cancelling an intra-Asia flight because the APU was broken.