Wednesday, April 9, 2008

DISinformation...pass it on...

Wow. Check out the comment from Anonymous about Sunday's UA900. You'll need to click on the "Comments" button at the bottom of the post entitled "Sometimes the captain doesn't lead the team..." Yet again, proof that nobody's ever certain that their airline tells the truth--the description I received and the description received by the commenter, a passenger on Sunday's aborted UA900, differ wildly; as a betting man, I'd bet that the passengers were outright lied to (a strong statement, I know, but one I believe that fits in this case), based on what I believe was an accurate description I received from the United representative I spoke with that day. I mean, c'mon United. Put a little effort into it, huh? Cracked windshield? Tell the friggin' truth, huh?

And compensate your passengers for your own incompetence, for Pete's sake. Not even a taxi ride home for a bay area local? You've gotta be kidding me. Oh, and only one agent for all the non-Premiers? I saw that with my own eyes before I left. Sheer ugliness. Pull some folks over from Domestic if you need to. But, c'mon. Try even a little bit, will ya? Airlines wonder why lots of customers don't like them, then they pull something like this. This wasn't a snowstorm at ORD, and this wasn't AA canceling 850 flights for further MD-80 inspections (like they did today). This was one cancelled flight.

I remain very brand loyal to United, since they're my best option to travel the world from SFO. But, every time I hear a story like this, United (or any other brand who pulls something like this) ends up sliding a tiny little bit in my mind. The bar is very low when it comes to customer service on a U.S. flag carrier, but I'm still amazed when the bar is missed by this much.

Here's an idea. If you're a fellow traveler, send a link to either or to the initial story ( to your traveling colleagues; ask them to have a look at the story about UA900, and make a comment here if they have one. I'd like to get some more commentary from folks who might've been on this particular flight, or just in general on horror stories where you've been mistreated by your carrier. I know that a number of folks who work in the travel industry tune in here.

So, let your voice be heard. No guarantees it'll change anything, but here's your opportunity to vent.

And, to Anonymous, many thanks for your comment!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sometimes the captain doesn't lead the team...

Unless you're a hermit, odds are good that every single day, you conduct your life in a manner which requires you to rely on others, and others to rely on you. Even if you're not officially part of a team, teamwork and cooperation are vital to our lives. Teams are composed of members who must rely on one another to execute successfully, whether in sports or in business.

Sports metaphors are used entirely too frequently to describe business matters; however, since the airline industry calls the person in charge of a flight "Captain", maybe the analogy works...when it works. Sports teams rely on their captains to provide leadership; a failure to do so can have far-ranging consequences. On an airplane, the advent of crew (cockpit) resource management has led to much better decision making on the flight deck, so the captain is no longer the sole authoritarian he (and it was almost always "he") was in the past; that said, you still can't go anywhere without a captain.

The passengers on today's United flight 900 are now experts on this topic. UA900 is a 747-400, kitted out to carry 347 passengers non-stop between San Francisco and Frankfurt. UA900 is pretty darn reliable, arriving on-time 87% of the time over the last two months. So, passengers on today's flight had a pretty good reason to expect that they'd get to Frankfurt at or near the scheduled arrival of 9:45 a.m. Monday. Did they?

Not so much.

I happened to be at SFO this evening dropping off someone for an international flight; looking at the line of people queued up to talk to a United ticket counter agent under a sign entitled "UA900", I figured something had gone awry. I managed to spend a few minutes speaking with a senior-level United person who was visibly embarrassed to tell me the story.

The skinny: initially, the flight was running a little over an hour late. That's not a big issue. What happened next, is.

When the flight was due to finally push off the gate, the captain was nowhere to be found. Despite the fact that the entire crew had originally shown up on time, by the time the flight was actually ready to leave sometime after 3 p.m., the captain was AWOL.

Inexcusable? Sure. But what was more inexcusable...the fact that the captain was missing, inconveniencing hundreds of people for tens of minutes, or the fact that the in-flight crew WALKED OFF THE AIRPLANE to protest the captain's inexplicable absence, inconveniencing hundreds of people for tens of hours? We're not talking a mutiny where 300+ people were in the boarding area--they were on the airplane, buckled up and ready to go. United repeatedly delayed the flight till the 6 p.m. hour in hopes of sourcing a full crew, but finally cancelled the flight, screwing up travel plans for hundreds of people on this end, and hundreds more on the Frankfurt end (who were to board the airplane for its return trip)--not to speak of the many thousands of dollars in compensation United was forced to fork out in the form of hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers.

To the captain and flight attendants who were behind today's events, I say: What're you, nuts? United grounded all 52 777s earlier this week due to maintenance issues, leading to the cancellation of more than 40 flights; this, on top of last month's grounding of 7 747s due to maintenance issues. While United's not alone in having maintenance (American's & Delta's MD-80s, Southwest's 737s, and financial (e.g., shutdowns of Skybus, ATA, and Aloha) issues, employees could at least attempt to pretend they're acting as a team. Smugness like this is rarely productive; I can't imagine what the flight attendants and their union are going to use as a response to this issue. United's been accused of smugness for quite a long time; the linked article was published just before I joined the Mileage Plus program nearly 20 years and 1.4 million butt-in-seat miles ago, so the perception certainly isn't new. Every airline is viewed as wrong at times, often undeservedly, so this isn't a crown held solely by United; depending on your viewpoint, anyone affiliated with an airline might be smug, even if you're flight's been cancelled due to weather.

But, c'mon...for matters that're under your own control, how about a little extra effort? Isn't that the job of a captain, and that of the rest of any team? I hate the cliche that "there's no 'I' in 'team'", but today's attempt at UA900 had more I's than the freakin' EBAA.

I've spent a while now thinking about the best term to define the relationship between pilots, flight attendants, and their respective unions. After casting aside "dysfunctional" (as in, "dys ain't functional"), I've settled on "symbiotic", defined by as "A close prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member."

That symbiosis once again rings true today.

So hey, today's crew on UA900--you just gave United another black eye the company neither needed nor deserved. More than 600 affected passengers (on both ends), their families, friends, and colleagues are all taking United's name in vain, and will continue to do so long after Monday's attempt at this flight (which obviously can't be called UA900, since the proper UA900 is due to fly...hopefully) arrives in Frankfurt Tuesday morning at 5:38 a.m., a mere 20 or so hours behind schedule.

To the folks on the flight get paid a lot of money because people rely on you. You earned that fourth stripe and those scrambled eggs. Don't violate that trust, that reliance that the traveling public has on you. Flight attendants, you always remind us in your pre-flight briefing that you're there for our safety; likewise, the traveling public relies on you. When individual members of both sides violate that trust, the repercussions are felt far and wide, way behind what might happen on a given airplane on a given day. The vast majority of United employees I bump into are professionals who conduct themselves very capably; as a 1K Million, I've seen a lot of these folks. But I have to question the motivation of today's UA900 crew. Was the last straw really the last straw?

Try a little harder next time. Every year, hockey teams take the 'C' (for captain) or 'A' (for assistant captain) off the sweaters of guys who no longer deserve it. Thanks to the power of a number of labor unions, I know how difficult it can be to terminate someone for cause. But it's not impossible.

Somebody deserves to lose a letter today.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

B.F. Goodrich blimp sighting...

Anybody remember the Goodrich blimp? If you're over the age of 35, odds are good you saw B.F. Goodrich tire commercials back in the 1970s. Goodrich didn't actually have a blimp, but they made highly regarded tires--and lived in the shadow of Goodyear, the 800-pound gorilla of vulcanized rubber. Trying to eliminate confusion in peoples' minds, Goodrich's ad agency dreamed up a campaign which talked about the Goodrich blimp--then reminded viewers that Goodrich didn't have a blimp, but that they made great tires. A little inverse marketing, if you will.

Creating a brand identity ain't easy--and it's even tougher when your name is similar to that of your better-known competitor. I was reminded of that challenge yesterday while watching ESPN's coverage of the season opener from Wrigley Field. Sam Zell, new owner of the Tribune Company (which owns the Cubs), has made the move to monetize a bunch of assets which had otherwise lain fallow, slapping advertising on lots of places it didn't exist before--cup holders, new seats, the ballpark itself. One particular sponsorship which has drawn lots of ink is the 3 rows of new seats down the third base line. Sponsored by the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the CBOE seats are being auctioned, rather than sold--leading to a more flexible, consumer-driven market, putting more money in the Cubs' coffers, and hopefully leading to a better product on the field.

However, CBOE lost out on a nice referral blurb yesterday during the ESPN telecast, when Brent Musburger said "They installed new seating here; these are the seats that are auctioned off by the Board of Trade. They have not been auctioned off for the entire season; I believe they are holding them back for July, August, and September."

Uh, only one problem. The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) is sponsoring these seats. The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) isn't. CBOE is the U.S. leader in just about everything when it comes to options trading. CBOT is now part of the Merc (Chicago Mercantile Exchange), and is still the big daddy of commodities exchanges--along with being better known.

I might've expected that Brent Musburger, a 1961 graduate of Northwestern University, would know that CBOE isn't the Board of Trade, but he's obviously not the only one confused.

Maybe they need a blimp.