Remember when “Fly the Friendly Skies”  was the motto of United Airlines, when American Airlines was “Something Special in the Air”, or when Delta touted “We love to fly, and it shows.”?

The horrific treatment of a United passenger this past week shown in a viral video that took social media by storm and resulted in enormous losses for the airline and its stock holders may just be the wake-up call needed by the industry.   A friend of mine posted in his social media feed today:

“In today’s Wall Street Journal there is an article about United. One of their board members who is the former CEO of Air Canada is quoted saying that ‘United employees need to craft a friendly policy and make customers smile.’  What United should do is hire all of Southwest’s employees and fire theirs.”

Among the contributing factors to the sorry state of customer service in the sky is undoubtedly the massive consolidation of the airline industry over the last decade. This has seen the number of major carriers[1] drop from nine in 2005 to just four today, American, Delta, Southwest, and United – in that order.   (The fifth place carrier, Alaska Airlines, carries less than 30% of the passengers of United, the #4 carrier on the list.)  The result is an industry which no longer feels it needs to appeal to customers.  On many routes that used to be served by multiple carriers there are only one or two choices that don’t involve three or more connections.  When choices are limited the need to make customers happy takes a back seat, typically a three-across seat with limited legroom.   Furthermore travelers, already accustomed to the hassle and indignity of airport security procedures, typically arrive fully expecting to be mentally beaten down by the experience – and after stripping off belts and shoes, being x-rayed, dog sniffed, e-sniffed and patted down the treatment by the airlines is just one more abuse we have come to expect.

Perhaps, just perhaps the airlines can take a lesson from what just happened to United.  Perhaps it starts with using Southwest – alone among the major airlines with a good reputation for customer satisfaction – as an example.   Their employees, unusually well-treated and therefore loyal to the company, are friendly and easy to deal with. They go out of their way to make the flying experience as positive as possible, they make it easy to do business with them, and take care of you when something goes wrong.  In light of the now almost universal industry practice of charging a premium for everything and taking responsibility for nothing, Southwest is a refreshing change – even including your first two checked bags at no additional cost.

I’m betting United could quickly recover from its public image nightmare by adopting Southwest’s policies and changing the way they treat their employees – and the way their employees treat customers.  Then they should advertise the hell out of what they have done . . .  “We’re going out of our way to be the friendliest airline in the sky.” perhaps forcing the rest of the industry to follow suit.

What a great end to the unfortunate story of David Dao and United this would be.


  [1] Major US carriers are domestic airlines with 2,500 or more daily departures and carrying 100 million or more passengers each year.

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