Out of the Blue

Lies in the sky: An inside look at United Airlines' abysmal service.


Elliott Neal Hester
July 28, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Having faced a multitude of employee-related cancellations since May, United Airlines passengers have the right to feel angry and frustrated.

I know exactly how they feel.

I'm a flight attendant who works for a competing carrier. A couple of years ago, my airline experienced a similar rash of cancellations due to pilot slowdown.

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As is the case with United, our pilots were angry about contractual issues. In protest, they refused to fly overtime -- a tactic that forced the cancellation of countless flights. As is the case with United, our management should have had the foresight to employ an adequate number of pilots.

The world's largest airline has been feeling the pilot squeeze for three long months. With the recent announcement that 2.5 percent of all flights will be canceled in August, there may be no end to the frustration. Thousands upon thousands of pissed-off passengers are spewing venom at the ticket counter, vowing to never fly United again.

The central problem seems to be communication, or the lack thereof. Passengers want to know what's going on. Why is the plane late? Why is the flight being canceled? Why have we been waiting on the runway for two hours? People can deal with the truth. The truth, as they say, will set you free. It may also send you scampering to another airline. Consequently, management occasionally tells little white lies when the situation requires.

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Case in point: In the mid-1990s, flight attendants at my airline went on strike. Our labor union devised a work stoppage that would last a specified number of days. Under provisions of the Railway Labor Act, the rule of law governing employees within the transportation industry, the airline could not hire replacement flight attendants until they'd been properly trained -- a process that would take exactly one day longer than the term of our strike.

On the eve of the strike, airline management flexed its media muscle. In a nationally televised statement, a company spokesperson promised to fire any flight attendant who failed to show up for work (a legal impossibility set forth by the terms of the Railway Labor Act). The lie didn't stop there, however. In the next breath, the spokesperson told passengers not to worry about canceled flights. "We have ample replacement flight attendants waiting in the wings," he said. "If employees decide to strike it will be business as usual."

This was a baldfaced lie.

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The airline had not begun training replacement workers. There was a small group of flight attendant supervisors, no more than 100 at best, who were qualified by the FAA to work the next day. The airline was bluffing. The hope was that we would blink. We didn't. The next day the strike took hold.

Thousands of flight attendants around the system walked off airplanes or refused to report for work. The airline was effectively shut down. But passengers were told otherwise. Airline spokespersons appeared on television, lying to the public once again. This time, they claimed most flights were operating normally.

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As an airport picket coordinator, I had access to a hotel control room set up by our pilots. The room resembled a military operation: A guard checked identification cards at the door; grim-faced flight attendants buzzed in and out; pilots made radio contact with nearly all departing flights.

I listened attentively while the radio transmissions flew. For two hours, nearly every departing pilot claimed to be flying an empty airplane. There were no flight attendants, and therefore no passengers. Later that afternoon, however, I watched a local news report. An airline spokesperson claimed that some of the very same flights had taken off with a full load of passengers.

The lie was the aviation equivalent of "I have never had sexual relations with that woman."

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As is the case with politicians embroiled in a scandal, airlines often get away with their transgressions. The boys in the executive suite may not always be veracious, but they understand the industry's most important truth: Passengers have extremely short memories.

Once this particular labor dispute is settled, United will no doubt offer discount fares to lure back alienated passengers. A New York/Los Angeles round-trip will suddenly drop to $119. You'll be able to fly from Denver to Chicago for less than the price of a nosebleed seat at a Bulls game. Like a jilted lover begging to come back, the very same passenger who was cussing about cancellations in May will be whispering plans into a United reservationist's ear.

It happened at my airline and it will happen at United. As is the case with airline management, passengers always succumb to the bottom line.

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Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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