A Pilot Customer Service Program

From today’s Wall Street Journal (may be subscription fee for on-line article):

[Danny Flanagan]Capt. Denny Flanagan is a rare bird in today’s frustration-filled air-travel world — a pilot who goes out of his way to make flying fun for passengers.

When pets travel in cargo compartments, the United Airlines veteran snaps pictures of them with his cellphone camera, then shows owners that their animals are on board. In the air, he has flight attendants raffle off 10% discount coupons and unopened bottles of wine. He writes notes to first-class passengers and elite-level frequent fliers on the back of his business cards, addressing them by name and thanking them for their business. If flights are delayed or diverted to other cities because of storms, Capt. Flanagan tries to find a McDonald’s where he can order 200 hamburgers, or a snack shop that has apples or bananas he can hand out.

And when unaccompanied children are on his flights, he personally calls parents with reassuring updates. “I picked up the phone and he said, ‘This is the captain from your son’s flight,’ ” said Kenneth Klein, whose 12-year-old son was delayed by thunderstorms in Chicago last month on a trip from Los Angeles to see his grandfather in Toronto. “It was unbelievable. One of the big problems is kids sit on planes and no one tells you what’s happening, and this was the exact opposite.”

So unusual is the service that Capt. Flanagan has been a subject of discussion on FlyerTalk.com, an online community for road warriors.

Mark B. Lasser, a Denver advertising-sales executive, came off a Capt. Flanagan flight and posted a question on FlyerTalk.com about why the pilot had been so friendly. “I don’t trust UA at all but can’t figure out what the ulterior motive is,” he wrote.

Others quickly came to Capt. Flanagan’s defense. “I’ve had this pilot before — what a great guy. He does the same thing on every flight,” said a FlyerTalk regular.

Mr. Lasser says he just wishes Capt. Flanagan weren’t such a rarity among United employees. “Every flight before and most flights since have been so poor in customer service that this guy really came across as representing his own standards more than the company’s. He’s an outlier within United,” Mr. Lasser said in an interview.

UAL Corp.’s United, which ranked in the middle of the airline pack in on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage in the first half of this year and next-to-worst in consumer complaints, has supported Capt. Flanagan’s efforts. The airline supplies the airplane trading-cards he hands out as passengers board, plus books, wine and discount coupons he has flight attendants give away. He goes through about 700 business cards a month, and the company reimburses him for the food he buys during prolonged delays.

“He’s a great ambassador for the company,” says Graham Atkinson, United’s executive vice president and “Chief Customer Officer,” who is leading an effort to boost customer service. He hopes more pilots and airport workers will adopt some of Capt. Flanagan’s techniques such as the frequent, detailed updates he gives to customers.

Air travel isn’t easy for anybody, given problems ranging from storms to mechanical breakdowns to computer snafus and lost luggage. Airline workers have endured pay cuts and fights with management; travelers have suffered poor service and unreliable flights. Capt. Flanagan tries to deal with the cheerfulness challenge — at least on the flights he works. “I just treat everyone like it’s the first flight they’ve ever flown,” said the 56-year-old Navy veteran who lives on an Ohio farm and cuts the figure of a classic airline captain: trim and gray-haired. “The customer deserves a good travel experience,” he said.

Last Tuesday morning, Capt. Flanagan was at gate C19 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport an hour before the scheduled departure of Flight 831 to San Francisco and made his first announcement about the delay before the gate agent had shown up. The time posted for departure was 8:20, but that was optimistic, Capt. Flanagan told passengers, because the Boeing 767 they would fly wouldn’t land from São Paulo, Brazil, until 7:02 and then had to be emptied, cleaned, inspected and towed from the international terminal.

He tried to lighten the mood, using a joke he tells before every flight. “I almost forgot to tell you, this is my first flight,” Capt. Flanagan said. Wary eyes looked up from newspapers and BlackBerrys through a long pause, before he added, “today.”

Capt. Flanagan mingled in the lounge answering questions and using his cellphone to call United operations officials to ask about connections to Asia and to cities on the West Coast.

Ajoke Odumosu, a track star at the University of South Alabama who was on her way to Osaka, Japan, for a world-championship competition, realized that when she began her trip with US Airways Group Inc., her luggage had been checked only as far as San Francisco. With the delay, there wouldn’t be time to retrieve it and recheck it for Japan.

Capt. Flanagan called Chicago and learned that the luggage was already in metal containers ready for loading on the 767, and couldn’t be retagged. He called San Francisco and found a manager who agreed to pull Ms. Odumosu’s bags aside and retag them for Osaka. In all, he spent 15 minutes on the problem.

“I was glad he went out of his way, which he didn’t have to do,” Ms. Odumosu said.

Once the plane was ready for boarding, Capt. Flanagan passed out cards with information about the Boeing 767. On every flight, he signs two of the cards on the back and, if there is wine left over from first class, he announces that passengers with his signature have won bottles of wine.

When the movie ended, flight attendants passed out napkins and passengers were invited to write notes about experiences on United — good or bad. Fifteen were selected to receive a coupon for a 10% discount on a future United flight, and Capt. Flanagan posts the passengers’ notes in crew rooms or sends them on to airport managers when they raise specific issues.

Randall Levelle of Morgantown, W.Va., and his family were flying to San Francisco because his father-in-law had just died. Capt. Flanagan invited Mr. Levelle’s three children into the cockpit during boarding.

“If other folks in the airline industry had the same attitude, it would go a long way to mitigating some of the negative stuff that has come about in the last four or five years,” Mr. Levelle said.

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3 Responses to A Pilot Customer Service Program

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. It truly exhibits how experience is the positive differentiator that matters in the years to come.

  2. Mike Kasperzak says:

    I’m a 1K on United (yes I’m a captive), and have had the occasional exceptional employee experience as well. It is amazing to me how far this kind of attitude can go. On the other hand, it isn’t so surprising how far the opposite attitude can go to wreck an image.

    I was making a special 1 night trip to ATL last spring through ORD for a surprise 50th birthday. I arrived on time in ORD, only to learn that all UAL flights to ATL were cancelled due to weather. Problem was, the weather was fine in ORD, and in ATL. In fact, United had flights enroute to ATL from SFO and DEN all day. There was however weather due in 12 hours. A Red Carpet agent actually got into an insulting arguement with me, a pilot to boot, about operations and flying around or over weather. All he had to do was be honest and say they didn’t want planes stranded. I wouldn’t have liked it, but it would have been honest.

    Oh, I missed the party, the only reason I paid $300 for the privilege.

  3. A little honesty, a little sensitivity, and a sense of humor can go a long way. And what I like about our networked world is this – bad service gets exposed and punished, while good service gets highlighted and rewarded, much more quickly and easily than ever before!

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