United Airlines staff rift hurts its customers in the long run

Awhile back, I wrote in this space about a PR innovation at United Airlines: Channel 9 on the audio system was devoted to communications among pilots and air-traffic controllers.

Awhile back, I wrote in this space about a PR innovation at United Airlines: Channel 9 on the audio system was devoted to communications among pilots and air-traffic controllers. These conversations showed the airline and government employees at their professional best, and I'm among many people who lauded United on this initiative.

So it's a shame - but sadly unsurprising, given the state of US airlines today - to discover that this little perk for passengers is not what it used to be.

Growing numbers of United pilots are turning off Channel 9. According to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, a key reason is the pilots' continuing unhappiness with the airline's management.

Their displeasure is warranted. Their response, however, is a self-inflicted wound.

We all take for granted, these days, the unfortunate condition of our domestic carriers. The planes are old and shabby, and the employees are in a years-long funk that shows no sign of abating.

United employees have even more reasons than usual to chafe. Top executives there have showed particular tone-deafness with labor and public opinion.

After the 9/11 attacks that so severely wounded the entire industry, United joined several other carriers in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. But the executives, after bludgeoning the workers into huge pay and benefit concessions, cut outrageously sweet deals for themselves. Their employees noticed, bitterly, but when they take out their frustrations on passengers, they don't do themselves any favors.

The Journal said United pilots have been cutting back on offering Channel 9, in some cases, "to highlight their current contract battle with United's management." (Others worry that passengers will post recordings online, the paper reported.)

Back in the late 1990s, United pilots fought with management by using work actions that led to widespread flight cancellations. Reducing cockpit transparency, which had been a favorite perk for frequent travelers, isn't in the same league. But it demonstrates a fundamental misconception: That we passengers will back the pilots if they do things to annoy us.

I've flown United a lot in recent years. This is not so much because I like the airline, though my frequent-flier status does give me better seats and occasional upgrades. As a friend, who also flies United all the time, put it, we are a prisoners of the carrier due to its dominance of the airport (and routes from there) that we've used the most.

From my vantage point, it seems that America's legacy airlines have less concern for public opinion than ever. Their planes are mostly full, and only when they strand hapless passengers on taxiways during bad weather do journalists appear to seriously notice the deteriorating condition of the US air-travel system, some of which - notably the antiquated air-traffic control system - is not the airlines' fault. Nor is customers' insistence on low prices as opposed to decent service.

Meanwhile, sullen workers collide daily with sullen customers. Executives cash in their bonuses. This is not a recipe for long-term success.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to dan@gillmor.com.

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