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by Paul Kiser

Paul Kiser – CEO of Enterprise Technologies, inc.

They are not too big to fail and personally that is the only viable option I see for United Airlines. I apologize for my tone, but United Airlines is the worst of the worst and I’m not alone in my opinion.

Today it was announced that United Airlines and Continental Airlines are officially merging. What a dumb move on Continental’s part.  Here are some of the comments I picked up about this merger:

“United is nothing but a mediocre airline, I don’t think I want to be combined with that work force. Continental has better customer service, it has a better product.” (1)

A Continental Airlines pilot that didn’t want to be identified

This is a sad day…united sucks…continental is an awesome airline. Some asshole will get a HUGE bonus for this and we travelers will get sh*t for service and surly b**ches at check in from united. I really hate American business nowadays. (2)

Comment to a Blog (I masked the worst of the vulgarity)

The worst kept secret in the airline industry is that United is a dysfunctional, uncaring, arrogant, and consistently bad air carrier. It has the public image of GM when Congress was considering bailing the car maker out in 2009. Songs have been written about United’s poor customer service.

(Listen to United Breaks Guitars by David Carroll)

United Airline service can best be summarized by this slogan: “We don’t care, we don’t have to.”

United is destined for failure and this merger seems to confirm that UAL continues to take action for all the wrong reasons. This merger is done for one purpose and one purpose only:  a desperate attempt to show the investors that it is doing something, anything, to avoid certain death.

United demise has been a slow, painful process of false promises, betrayals, and really, really bad management. United employees have been jerked around so many times that they no longer care about customer service. I have interacted with them enough to see that UAL has institutionalized poor customer service.

One example happened to me last year at Denver International Airport. I was flying with my four year-old boy and we were checking in for a flight from Denver to Reno on United. As we approached the ticketing area we walked past 80 or more ticket kiosks that were wide open. They were all reserved for the handful of passengers with no baggage or for international travelers, while passengers with baggage were only offered ten or so kiosks and a 30 minute wait in a long line. They had more people directing traffic for the long line than they had assisting passengers. That is not poor customer service, that’s customer loathing. United employees have heard it all, seen it all, and they see no reason to care.

My guess is that new employees at United are trained by people who are so cynical about their management and customers that they drive out any spark of hope in the rookies. That level of institutionalized hate for your job can’t be fixed without massive changes in staff. It would take a complete wipe of all levels of management and dismissal of almost all rank and file employees to excise the environment of customer hate that exists at United. A merger may make investors happy but it changes nothing in the poisonous environment that will spread to Continental after the merger.

Is there any hope? Not likely. The company name will stay United, so people will associate Continental employees with the sour employees at United. That’s not good. Jeffery A. Smisek, the CEO of Continental, will be the CEO of the new company, but United’s headquarters in Chicago will be the HQ for the new organization, which means the United ongoing leadership attitudes and problems will be retained.

Regarding the merger, Smisek said, “This combination brings together the best of both organizations and cultures to create a world-class airline with tremendous and enduring strengths.”  and  added, “Together, we will have the financial strength necessary to make critical investments to continue to improve our products and services and to achieve and sustain profitability.”(3)

Note that Smisek says nothing, not a word, about the 800-pound gorilla in United’s Operations, which is bad, really bad, customer service. United Airlines wouldn’t be out looking for a merger if it wasn’t a house of cards ready to collapse, but the new CEO seems blissfully ignorant that most flyers would fly anything but United.

All this is good for the customer because it will probably lead to the demise of a mega airline within 36 months after the completion of the merger and the equipment will be sold off to smaller carriers.

However, I can see a small opportunity for a turnaround, but it would be a miracle. First, it is that Public Relations professionals dream because they can go no where but up. Second, all public image is local, so it would take massive retraining of the staff to do a Tom Peters’ Re-Imagine! of the company. The extreme makeover would have to happen at the rank and file level. If they don’t buy into a 10.0 seismic shift in customer service the makeover is doomed. Investors be damned, everything would have to be done to make the passenger a VIP. No baggage fees, no accountants counting nickels and dimes.

Realistically the dynamics at United make the task impossible. Labor unions, cynical employees, authoritarian managers, accountant infestation and investor worship, all would work against the goal of excellent customer service, so that leaves the obvious option: let United die. It is unfortunate that United will take Continental down with them, but I guess they asked for it. Dumb move.

(1) Top News Article: http://topnews.us/content/218898-continental-airlines-worried-about-merging-united-airlines

(2)  Joe.My.God Blog:  http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2010/05/united-and-continental-airlines-to.html

(3)  American Headline News:  http://abh-news.com/united-and-continental-airlines-merge-2738.html

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