Unfriendly skies

Passengers who try to fly on United are ending up as casualties of a labor war between the airline's management and its "employee owners."

By Stephen Yafa
July 28, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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The Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles leg of Cathy Baille's United Airlines flight to Seattle was delayed two and a half hours by bad weather.

Baille's irritation was somewhat eased when she and her fellow passengers were informed that their connecting flights would wait. But when Baille arrived that evening in L.A., the final United flight to Seattle was long gone. She was stranded.

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The couple in front of her at the customer service desk got hotel vouchers. Baille and about 20 other connecting passengers were told that there were no hotel rooms left in the entire city. "Sleep in the airport tonight and take an Alaska Airlines flight tomorrow morning," the United "owner-representative" instructed her. He pointed to a bench: her bed. When she inquired as to whether the airline would reimburse her if she found a room herself, the agent just shook his head briskly.

Two weeks ago my wife and I clocked about six sweaty miles running between gates for a last-minute standby ticket from San Francisco to Boston after our flight was canceled. A United pilot, all silver wings and silver hair, stood behind us in a ticketing line. "What're they telling you?" he asked. We told him what we'd heard: The delays were the result of pilots who had a problem with Logan Airport's cross-runway flight patterns.

He turned beet red: "Those puke-faced lying bastards!"

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A week later my stepdaughter's cross-country United flight pulled out of the gate and stopped. Passengers got no more information for almost an hour. Then the captain came on: "This plane was recently struck by lightning," he said. "The right wing flap isn't working properly and I have determined it is not safe to fly." Back at the gate, as the passengers were being discharged, an attendant confided: "He did the same thing last night."

Friends report similar events. The captain on a London flight turns back from the runway at the last minute. "Sorry, folks," he announces, "I forgot my passport." Another pilot pulls out of the gate after several hours of ground repairs, stops abruptly and then explains to his passengers: "I just noticed they forgot to put fuel in the plane."

Which leaves the rest of us to wonder: Who's in the cockpit here? Leslie Nielsen?

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Flying the fractious skies of United, exasperated and enraged travelers are encountering meltdowns in terminals across the country. If you're on a UAL flight these days, you're likely to change from a person in transit to a hunk of raw meat caught between two ferocious combatants. Today, life at United has become a fierce internecine battle that pits management against employees -- particularly pilots and mechanics whose union contracts are up for renewal.

Under federal law, pivotal airline personnel are not allowed to strike. Seeking better wages, job protection and improved working conditions, UAL employees have taken another tack: work slowdowns and refusals to fly overtime. The result has been a debacle for passengers. The New York Times noted on July 16: "No group of passengers has suffered more of late than those flying United, the world's largest airline. Just under 57 percent of the carrier's flights arrived on time in May, far worse than the performance of its closest competitors...Of the 33 routes on which flights were late more than 80 percent of the time in May, 27 were United's. And United canceled more flights in May -- nearly 9 percent of its schedule -- than any other airline." More than 350 UAL flights a day on average have been canceled since April.

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Two weeks ago, 10,000 workers at San Francisco International, all of whom belong to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (which include customer service representatives, ticket office employees, ramp workers, mechanics and janitors), threatened to call in sick as their contract expired.

Sick? We can tell them about sick. Several million of us now qualify for aid to the emotionally disabled after being harangued, harassed, deceived, starved, badgered, provoked and shunted like cattle by hordes of UAL employees. We'd expect to receive fairer treatment as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

When I tracked down United captain Herb Hunter, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association, I apologized for my confusion. Wasn't United an employee-owned operation? People who own a shop usually work hard to welcome their customers.

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"We're definitely not employee owned," Hunter explained. "That's a real misleading statement. What happened was that six years ago we traded deep wage cuts for stock options, so on paper we look employee owned, but management never changed its attitude. In fact, they're more dug in than ever. If passengers don't want to be inconvenienced, all the company has to do is to take care of its employees."

By "we," Hunter means the pilots who refuse to fly overtime. "We told them a year ago we're 500 pilots short but they didn't budge; now our contract's up, we're dissatisfied, and what do they do? Go out and purchase US Airways against our strong opposition." Since many US Airways pilots were hired before UAL's pilots were, the merger will give US Air pilots seniority. "That hurts," Hunter says, "because for airline pilots seniority is everything."

UAL company spokesman Andy Plews listened for a few seconds while I outlined Hunter's position, then interrupted: "He said we're not really employee owned. That is absolute nonsense!"

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I mentioned the pilot shortage. True?

"This is a very hostile interview," Plews informed me, his clipped British enunciation rearing back like a terrier to nip through the phone wires. I told him that while I may not be entirely objective, having experienced six United flight delays or cancellations myself in the past week, I was simply relaying Hunter's point of view.

"I will not comment on groundless allegations. Our goal is industry-leading contracts, and we've taken steps to cope with the pilots' job action by canceling flights up to a week in advance so that customers can make other plans." With that Plews terminated our conversation.

In all fairness, a summer of bad weather nationwide has compounded every major airline's customer-relations problems. But at United, in particular, there is an additional problem: truth. Exhausted and assaulted customer service agents -- some paid as little as $8 an hour -- are being instructed to blame delays on weather and crew shortages. One agent lamented to a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, "How are you supposed to tell people it's weather-related when it hasn't happened?"

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If customer relations are United's first concern, as Plews emphasized before cutting me off, his company's record doesn't appear to support that approach. Untied.com, a Web site devoted to the war stories and revenge strategies of pissed-off UAL customers, keeps a running tally. Since January, according to the site, 2,439 customer complaints have been filed with UAL, and 31 replies have been sent. To save you the math, that's 1.2 percent, or slightly better than one reply for every 100 complaints received.

"Customer service is all that's left in this industry," airport-sleeper Baille wrote on Untied.com. "And I didn't get it," she adds.

Westword, a Denver weekly, is now sponsoring a "What United Did to My Summer Vacation" contest. Readers are invited to submit their worst UAL stories. First prize is a free trip on another airline.

For the second year running, Airlines Quarterly ranks United lowest in customer satisfaction. Research reveals that because many of United's computer systems do not communicate with one another, its front-line employees are often unaware that a flight has been delayed.

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All this leaves passengers wondering whether it's preferable to be lied to by a ticketing agent in the know or to be told the truth by one who hasn't a clue. Tough choices. Throw in attitude, indifference, petulance and rudeness, and you have a combustible recipe for a company apparently about to crash and burn.

But Hunter, for one, knows that even though United has canceled more than 4,800 flights in recent months and has found new and inventive ways to alienate its most valued commodity, you and me, it also excels in damage repair.

"They'll get you back," said Hunter, "with cheap seats." He predicts a fall sale that will entice us yet again to fly the divided skies. But that still won't address the labor-relations problems United faces, or the inherent unhappiness of thousands of its employees. Hunter doesn't look forward to peace and friendship anytime soon. "If you can't hear the frustration in my voice you're not listening." You might soon spot him among us flying the friendly rails of Amtrak.


Stephen Yafa

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