It's Not Just United Airlines Or: I Missed That Memo


Because I do so much long haul travel, I feel somewhat qualified to opine on the United-Dao saga.

The current narrative misses two key things. The far more important one is the fact that the TSA was handed sweeping authority over travel in the post 9/11 dispensation. Along with this came the usual over-enablement of random law enforcement groups -- in this case the "Chicago Aviation Police" whose existence was heretofore unknown. The central role of the TSA and other LE in making air travel so unpleasant has received much less attention in all the media coverage. 

When was the last time you saw a TSA agent smile and be courteous? How often do you see a bunch of TSA agents standing around laughing and joking while a line of fifty frazzled people waits as a "security" agent slowly ambles over to take over from the last one? Have you noticed how there are often a dozen or more TSA agents in the security area but only four of them are actually working? Who is training these people to be kind to travelers (answer: nobody, because nobody at the TSA views this as a "KPI")? How is this behavior excusable from folks who work on taxpayer money? Why are we not getting the same level of courtesy and performance that we would get at McDonalds?

The reason are straightforward, and originate with leadership. Nobody anywhere in the TSA recognizes that part of "serving citizens" also means being service-oriented towards the 99.999999999999% of all travelers who are NOT Bad Guys. Unlike real police, who typically show up in response to an alleged criminal act, airport "security" plays a checking role in which everyone is evaluated. So they get to act out their power fantasies with all of us. 

In the US, the New York airports are the worst of the lot. They're entirely staffed by unpleasant human beings who think they're bouncers at a Manhattan nightclub (and that it's 2 a.m.). SFO is amongst the better ones -- but you'd give it a C grade at best. Who is measuring performance? Why isn't there a customer rating system for TSA operations at various airports? 

It will likely come as no surprise that the TSA is terrible at the very function that led to us-the-people giving them authoritarian powers. When we did we all collectively decide that a lazy, over militarized, poorly managed, and sadly incompetent workforce could legally make miserable what is already a stressful experience? I missed that memo. 


The second issue relates to United itself. The stories have focused on procedures around involuntary disembarkation (note: can there be a more Orwellian expression for "dragged screaming off the plane"?) and how United got that all wrong. This lens does not remotely capture how surly, unpleasant and bureaucratic United's customer-facing employees are. This is true for ground staff, inflight staff, and customer support. The Dao situation escalated primarily because a ground staff supervisor didn't have any common sense or empathy.

Airlines are amongst the last bastions of unionization in corporate America, and as we saw with Munoz' lengthy letter to employees, United Airlines views employee unions as its main constituency. The UA3411 event is therefore not a procedural failure that policy changes can improve. The company is unfixable; this is the result of decades of operating a certain way. It will remain terrible until the end of time.

For a contrast, try flying JetBlue, whose customer-facing teams turn on its head this idea that "Asian hospitality" is the reason Asian airlines are so well-liked. JetBlue gives you American hospitality, and it works just as well. It doesn't take a whole lot. It takes smiles; it takes courtesy; it takes a problem-solving mindset; it takes a "culture of yes" rather than a "culture of no". That's it. 

Lenny Mendonca wrote an eloquent blog post about United a while ago and it's worth re-reading (weird coincidence: Lenny was my first interviewer for my first job out of college, and I hadn't seen or heard of him since until I read this). 

I stopped flying United a while ago. This makes things harder in terms of finding flights at the right time on the right routes, given their lock on slots at my main airports. But it is wonderful to not head to a flight with a feeling of dread. 


There are countries and airports that have figured out the soft issues. One of the best examples is Changi airport in Singapore. Agents at every step -- at entry into immigration, at the immigration desk, and at the security check -- are remarkably polite. They smile all the time (and look like they mean it), don't rudely beckon you with a finger, don't make you feel like they're doing you a giant favor by spending some of their precious time dealing with you, know that they are ambassadors for their organization and their country at the same time that they are guardians and custodians.

Did you know that Changi has installed immediate feedback kiosks right after immigration so you can rate your immigration agent? Now that is a good way to hold your "security" professionals accountable. 

I am not going to hold out Silicon Valley tech companies as paragons of virtue (Exhibit A: Zenefits). But the best tech companies get two things right: a relentless focus on product and product innovation, and a near-paranoid concern about the customer experience. The corporate nightmare that is United, and the federal travesty that is the TSA, could benefit from someone in leadership developing the same focus.