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.


  1. I think any of us who have flown for a long time aren't suprised by a story like this. With the exception of Southwest, it has been my experience that US flight crews, while not lazy, seem to have different standards than many others. I remember the first time I flew Malayasia Air for about 12 hours in coach. There wasn't more than 5 minutes during that whole trip when a flight attendant wasn't visible carrying a pitcher of water, handing out ice cream, etc. These women worked their butts off that whole flight and I doubt than any of them took a few hours to read people magazine in the back seats. Yet, that same year, we blew some mileage and upped to first class on American Airlines on a trans-Pacific flight. Our dishes sat at our seats for nearly an hour. A flight attendant was rarely seen. You get the idea. On a very recent JAL flight home from Tokyo I saw a flight attendant RUN several rows to help my wife pick up a baby item that had dropped.

    The captain may have had an excuse. Maybe he was passed out in the bathroom, etc. But the rest of the crew? This isn't a snow day at high school. I think that if unions would use their power to ensure high standards of workmanship along with the so-called protection of member's rights they would help everyone. And that crew certainly isn't going to get any help from the gate employees anymore. What WERE they thinking? As you said, kudos to the gate having to clean up the mess.

  2. As a passenger on Sunday's UA900, I can tell you that the story told here does not jibe with the story we were given during the course of the day.

    First, and I think this part is true, we were told that our plane was being given to the Shanghai flight leaving about the same time. We were told this was because their arrival was late at night and if connections were missed, people would be stranded. Whereas, going to Frankfurt at the same hour, you arrive in the morning, and missed connections are easier to make up as FRA has many flights later in the day. I don't appreciate being on the low-status flight, but, o.k., there at least is an excuse for it.

    Now, they also told us that the plane that had been going to Shanghai needed maintenance and was going out of service. It was to be replaced by a plane that had come in from London with a windshield problem. That plane would not be ready for a couple of hours, so we fell back to a 3:55 departure time. Once aboard, after about 2 more hours (getting close to 6:00), we were told that the windshield repair had failed. They deplaned us, about 300 people, and had 4 agents working in the lobby to accommodate us all. Ridiculous, especially as 3 of the 4 were working the "1k/First/Business" line, leaving a single agent for the "Peon" line. That guy clearly didn't know what he was doing and was taking 15-20 minutes per passenger. Finally he got one guy who he could not help at all, and the peon line ground to a complete halt.

    I'm a Bay Area local, and I wasn't making a connection in Frankfurt. If I'd been given good information, at that point I could have simply gone home. But I thought they'd offer a meal or transportation voucher, or a future travel voucher as an apology. So I hung around in the peon line, near the front, for over an hour while it barely moved and a couple hundred frustrated people queued up behind me. After a good long while, more agents showed up to work the peon line, and another came along the line asking people what their situation was and informing them of their options. It was only then - and, again, this was after waiting an hour - that I was told I would be offered nothing, not even taxi fare home. Just go home and come back.

    So let's just say this was a clusterfuck in just about every way imaginable. If the story of the AWOL pilot is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, that means they lied to us repeatedly. The crew walking away was inexcusable. The scene in the lobby was inexcusable. The lack of information was inexcusable.

  3. Hey, at least the captain didn't fly them to FRA for a touch-and-go back to SFO. (Not that he would have had enough fuel to do so.)

    China's unhappy pilots