The Relentless Inappropriate Decision Making of United Airlines – A Letter from Stan Slap
December 06, 2001
Larry D. De Shon
Senior Vice President
PO Box 28876
Tucson, AZ 85726-8876
I received your form letter dated November 26 in which you advise me that I will not have quite enough miles to re-qualify for 1K status. I want to thank you for the fascinating correspondence and assure you that my comments are not personally directed at you.
Every time I think it’s impossible for United Airlines to do one more thing that is counter-intuitive to creating success, I am stunned to find the company well is far deeper than I could imagine.
My travel plans, like those of so many other frequent business travelers, were temporarily curtailed by the tragic events of September 11. I would have easily qualified for 1K status without this interruption. Apparently, any history of considerable travel purchases by repeat customers is of negligible concern to United.
I am intrigued by the relentlessly inappropriate decision-making on the part of the company. Here, in a troubled and competitive environment, is a chance to extend the program qualification period and retain the goodwill and patronage of your most loyal customers, yet the company chooses not to. I commend United, for it is an undeniably bold strategy to treat customers as a commodity of inexhaustible supply and indefatigable loyalty. Flawed, dangerous, and boneheaded, certainly, but undeniably bold.
United is clearly in as much trouble after September 11 as the company was before September 11. Perhaps it is because United chooses to remain delusional and blame outside circumstances for inside problems. The company has publicly avowed that terrorists, the economy, the weather, fuel prices, government interference, the lack of government interference, a generous employee pension fund, poor labor relations as a result of defaulting on the employee pension fund, not enough customers and too many customers are reasons for its chronic misfortunes. Sure, some of these problems do exist but the real problem is what United has chosen to do about them. A few years from now these problems will still exist and, should United still be around in whatever chronically threatened state, it will still be whining about them.
Regardless of which excuse one picks (and I would love to know the decision-making process for this amongst United management—does it involve darts?), one thing is clear: United is doomed and has been doomed for quite some time. The company does not have customers; it has hostile advocates who have been forced by convenience, monopolized routes and reduced choices, or temporarily bribed by discounted fares and frequent flyer programs, into a minimal show of grudging allegiance.
Customer service is not just a department and a slogan to United; it’s a constantly inconvenient and unreasonable demand. Example: Evidently no circumstances your customers routinely face, from delayed flights to requests for special meals, have ever been seen before by your company, so how could you possibly anticipate them or be prepared to deal with them?
I don’t mean to dismiss the effort that developing and maintaining this proprietary service approach must have taken. Through a combination of diligent activities extending from the loftiest senior manager to the lowliest “customer representative,” Team United has turned what could often have been a discretionary purchase into a margin-shredding commodity purchase.
Personally, I can live very well without the 1K status; it’s hardly a badge of honor to fly frequently on United. The United FF levels should begin with “Loser,” increase to “Total Loser,” and top out with free luggage tags emblazoned with “Inoperable Loser.” And I could care less what happens to United—quid pro quo since United could care less what happens to me.
I only write this letter to thank you, on behalf of your entire, um, organization. I consult at the highest levels to many of the smartest, fastest, and most demanding companies in the world. And I give keynote speeches all over the world to business executives. I don’t know how much harder I’d have to work if United didn’t continually supply me with fresh material courtesy of your hallmark Last Flight Out of Saigon customer experience. I’ll certainly share your letter and I really appreciate the effort the company makes to keep itself relevant as a case study for corporate suicide.
Keep up the … work.
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