United Pilots Get Personal

United pilots are looking to spread goodwill and win hearts of customers through more interaction and attention.
United pilots are looking to spread goodwill and win hearts of customers through more interaction and attention. (Stephen J. Carrera - AP)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

That impersonal voice from the cockpit -- "This is the captain speaking" -- is getting friendlier at United Airlines.

Pilots at the carrier are stepping up a campaign of friendliness in a bid to win customers' hearts -- and loyalty.

Under the program, you'll be more likely to see an actual pilot at the gate to explain to you why your flight is delayed. While airborne, frequent fliers may find a flight attendant pressing a note from the pilot into their hands: a personal thank-you for being aboard. And kids traveling alone will in some cases be offered a chance to call home while in flight, using a pilot's credit card.

United's pilots hope the initiative will boost passengers' satisfaction with the airline.

"We're the CEO's direct ambassador," said Bud Potts, United's first officer and flight operations supervisor. "Some folks want to get that eye contact. It's like when you go into a store and the clerk doesn't make eye contact with you. You may not feel like you want to be there."

The pilots also are hoping to win some affection for themselves. Their warmer touch could translate into a bigger bonus. United awards bonuses based on passenger surveys conducted each quarter by an outside research firm. The size of the pilots' bonuses depends on how much they surpass the airline's internal goals for customer satisfaction.

Potts and Denny Flanagan, a United 757 and 767 captain, are leading efforts to motivate the carrier's 6,400 pilots to be more of a presence for customers.

Flanagan says he has flight attendants pass out cards to all passengers in first class, and he includes his e-mail address. He says he receives about six to 10 responses a week from passengers who he says appreciate the gesture. "The majority of people really don't want to fly. They should have a good travel experience when they're on the airplane. So we try to treat each customer as if it was the first time they've ever flown," Flanagan said.

But some passengers have long memories and may be less receptive. It's been six years since United's pilots outraged travelers by refusing to work overtime during bitter contract disputes in the midst of the busy summer travel season. United was forced to cancel 25,000 flights.

Rockville management consultant Evan Leepson said he received a card from the captain on his April 26 flight from Reagan National to Chicago. The card read: "Mr. Leepson, we appreciate your business. . . . Thank you for flying United."

The card wasn't terribly personal. Instead of a phone number or e-mail address, it had a post office box at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Leepson said he thought the gesture was "nice" but was basically a waste of time. "I think it's stupid. It's peripheral to the real issues such as getting me to my destination safely and on time," he said. "Those are the satisfiers, not handing me a business card."

United pilots also pass out trading cards with a picture of the aircraft and facts about it, such as the name, size and other details. At the bottom of the card is a note to travelers thanking them for flying the airline. As with the business cards, United's pilots pass out the cards to only United's top frequent fliers. The airline reimburses the pilots for printing their cards.

For the past 20 years or so, about 10 percent of United's pilots handed out the business cards to passengers. During layovers, most pilots would review the passenger manifest and identify which passengers were top frequent fliers. The pilot would then write a personal note thanking them for flying the carrier. The current campaign hopes to broaden card-giving by pilots.

It also aims to reach a bit into the pilots' wallets. To place phone calls for unaccompanied children on board, the pilots give their personal credit card to a flight attendant who swipes the card in the in-flight phone. The pilots receive a discount for use of Verizon air phones but are not reimbursed by United for the calls. Flight attendants police the calls to make sure the kids don't stay on too long. "You don't want them talking too much about what they had for lunch on the flight," Potts said.

Mary M. Duffy, a Menlo Park, Calif., food service consultant and frequent flier, said she could "care less" about interacting with pilots. "I just want to make sure the pilots are in their seats, sober and ready to fly. I don't need to know if he or she has a warm personality."

At a time when passengers are paying higher fares and have more fees for curbside luggage check-in, meals and other amenities, Arlington consultant Jeff De Cagna said business cards and other gestures won't be met with "anything but cynicism by most people."

But some passengers said they would appreciate such contact, especially those who are nervous about flying or who want to learn more about the flight.

Frequent flier Steve McDuffie of Richland, Wash., said he likes being able to get a sense of the personality behind the person operating the plane. "Normally, it makes a passenger more at ease."

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