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United Airlines has had a rough week and some of it is self inflicted. Weather at many of its hubs caused massive delays and cancellations across the network. This, coupled with flight attendants being forced to sleep on cots as they spent hours trying to connect with crew scheduling to find out where they need to be or where they would be sleeping, families left stranded on cots, and baggage being delayed and mishandled has not been the best look. The optics get much worse, however, when the CEO, Scott Kirby, blames the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and then flees the scene onboard a private jet.
United has had more delays and cancellations than any other US carrier this week. The data above shows performance through June 28th. But, through yesterday, the carrier was still struggling. It had canceled 13% of flights on June 29th and 8% on June 30th. The trend is moving in the right direction, but since Saturday there have been 8,000 flights canceled and another 42,750 delayed. United flights make up 36% of the total or nearly 3,000 canceled flights. This means that around 400,000 passengers were booked on flights that did not end up making it to their destinations.
Weather-related issues at United’s hubs in Newark, Chicago, Denver, Houston, and San Francisco all contributed to the flight issues, but the airline is not without blame. Even with $54 billion of taxpayer money funneled into the airlines during the pandemic, many chose to reduce staffing. They could not let them go, so they offered buyouts and early retirements. This has since created a shortage and the effects are now being felt.
The airlines were overzealous in building their schedules. The demand has been there to meet these schedules, but they cannot effectively operate what they have planned with their current staffing. United’s CEO tried to shift blame. He said it was staffing at the FAA that caused the issues. Both the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA disagreed.
Captain Garth Thompson is the chair for United ALPA. He commented:
United’s travel disruptions this week stem from one source; company senior management’s inadequate planning and insufficient investment in the airline infrastructure. Our pilots agree with our passengers that this lack of foresight and disregard of warning signs is unacceptable. It’s time for United leadership to change their thinking and invest in its labor, staff support, and facilities with updated contracts instead of ensuring our CEO has the highest salary.”
A memo from the flight attendant’s union reads:
The levels of frustration are high and it feels as if there is no solution in sight – especially for those who have been on duty for extended periods of time. Because hold times are currently in excess of 3 hours as crew scheduling works to update crews in chronological order, we are working to find solutions to relieve some of the backlog.”
The staffing issues must have some truth, because United is offering flight attendants up to 300% pay this weekend to pick up flights.
When Kirby saw that the situation was still bad, he did not stay at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to try to improve employee morale, address customer issues, and make the situation better. No, he hopped a private jet back to his home in Colorado. Apparently, he paid for the seat on his own dime and other bloggers think that’s okay. They are commending him for not bumping a paying passenger. While that would have been worse, taking the private jet sends a message that he doesn’t care and would rather flee the scene.
The Instagram post above from user @paymeforboarding calls out some of the issues here and they’re right. Kirby issued an apology:
I also owe you an apology. I took a private jet home from New York on Wednesday and that was insensitive to so many of our customers who were trying to get home. You often hear me say ‘no excuses’ so I won’t try to make any to you. Many of you have been working around the clock for days – often through severe weather – to take care of our customers. You are showing the best of United, and I regret that my thoughtlessness distracted from your professionalism.”
This will likely do little to improve staff morale, improve United’s current public perception, or help get things back on track. It’s been a very bad week for United and with labor disputes, more inevitable summer weather likely on the way, and a CEO that is now viewed as the enemy, this summer is going to be an interesting case study of what not to do.
Anthony’s Take: This situation seems to get a little more complicated and worse each day. United is working to get its operations back on track, but public perception changes take time. Hopefully, my flight on Tuesday makes it home. I don’t make Mr. Kirby’s money, so a private jet is not an option.
(Featured Image Credit: Yahoo News.)
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