Airline Captains, Judgment Calls, Corporate Culture

The power of a captain's saying, 'Not on my watch'

I really intended to let this subject sit for a while, but I have seen two things that I think are worth passing on. They make this a long item, so consider "classic view."


The two items do not include a response from United to the stranger-the-longer-you-think-about-it case of a pilot who diverted his whole planeload of passengers to Chicago, on a trip from Denver to Baltimore, so that police could board the plane and remove a mother and father and their two young sons. The parents' offense was to have complained about what they considered an overly violent and salacious movie being shown on the overhead screens. I've heard nothing back from the United press office, not even "message received" or "no comment," and at this point I'll be surprised if I do get a response. [UPDATE 12:10pm I have just now heard from Megan McCarthy, Managing Director for External Communications at United. She said she would look into the episodes I've been describing and provide a response. I told her that when she did I would put it up promptly and call attention to it. UPDATE-UPDATE 5:00 pm You can read the United statement here.]

Instead the two items are contrasting accounts of the judgment calls that go with any position of responsibility and that collectively create and express a "corporate culture."

The first is from Chris Manno, an American Airlines captain who blogs under the name JetHead. In "Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident" he describes a decision he made, in violation of corporate incentives/pressures and perhaps even rules, because he thought it was the right thing to do. It was "right," he thought, not simply on its specific merits but also for its general representation of corporate and personal values.

This is truly a remarkable tale, and I thank reader ER for alerting me to it. By the end of it you'll understand the power of what Manno means when he says, Not on my watch. This captain has the same job as the one who diverted to Chicago, but not the same profession.

The second is an account from a reader in Australia. It is very long but has a payoff. Also, it includes an on-the-job picture of an airline employee, which I have obviously altered. I've blanked out the employee's face, but in the original you would see that his eyes are closed and he is in blissful repose. Now, the reader:
>>I'm 58 years old, a 2 million mile flyer with United, at the 1K level for 10+ years.  Although we live in Australia now, my wife and I are both Chicagoans originally and we still have a condo there.

I've stuck with United thru the bankruptcies, merger with Continental (which actually helped us as CO and now United fly into [the city in Australia] where we live).  What you've described is employee malfeasance - a problem that all the airlines struggle to address.

And it should be noted that most frequent flyers have, since 9/11, severely moderated their personalities WHEN ONBOARD THE FLIGHT.  I had routinely seen passengers chastising flight attendants and even arguing with them prior to 9/11.  After?  Pilots and flight attendants have clearly formed a "pact" where the pilots are used (willingly and unwillingly) to "get square" with passengers.  As a result passengers have become meek as sheep onboard.  And I would anecdotally opine that the ground agents are getting more abuse than before, because of this and other capacity-related issues.

In October of 2010, I boarded a UA flight from Geneva, Switzerland to Dulles.  I had been upgraded to business class (along with two other colleagues who had been at the same engineering conference).  As is my custom, I changed from my business casual clothing to dark, knee-length shorts and a t-shirt.  This was, for any frequent traveler, a "sleeping" flight.  

Shortly after I had changed my wardrobe (in the lavatory), a pilot came up to me and said "you can't travel dressed that way".  I turned to him with a stunned look and of course asked "why not?".  He said it was inappropriate and walked away.  A flight attendant came up shortly afterward and said "you'd better change back because the pilot isn't going to let you travel that way".  I asked her why that was, and she just rolled her eyes - which told me this pilot might be trouble.  There were what looked like elderly Europeans in business class, dressed for travel like it was 1960.  They may have lodged the complaint, I don't know.  I sat down in my seat, used my blanket to cover my legs, and waited.  

The pilot returned, and was clearly agitated.  During his diatribe he poked me, which I considered assault.  But what does one do about this kind of incident in a foreign country?  Should I stand my ground and likely be ejected from the flight at a port where United had no employees (only contract staff)?  Even my colleagues witnessing this incident were cowed into silence.  I was unsurprised.

I changed back into my boarding clothing.  

I toyed with returning to my shorts after departure, because I thought it would be much harder for the pilot to explain a diversion disrupting 250 passengers.  And I'm a "Type-A" person, who worked on film production as a sound engineer for 20+ years, where my tactlessness was honed to a knife edge.  I'm usually not loathe to speak-out, even on behalf of others.  

When we arrived at Dulles I used my express card to race thru immigration, and found a police officer.  I explained briefly what had happened onboard the plane, and said I wanted the pilot identified and perhaps a report filed for assault.  As the pilot came out of immigration, three police officers stopped him and ID'd him for me.  (His name is XX).  He saw me standing with another officer 20 feet away and shouted "you'll never fly on United again".

I of course notified United Airlines via the "1K Voice" email address, and as I would be staying in Chicago for a week or so I drove out to their headquarters building in Schaumburg.  I eventually told the story to both the customer service rep that I had been in contact with previously, as well as the chief pilot.  United also interviewed my colleagues, so they were clearly satisfied that the story I told was accurate and even more importantly, I DIDN'T CAUSE A RUCKUS. And subsequently I was provided with upgrade and discount certificates. But of course I never was told what happened, if anything, to this pilot or why he had acted so irrationally.

So why are these things happening?  

Let's use as an example Singapore Airlines, who's onboard staff are among the best in the world.  These flight attendants are given one five year contract, and then except for a handful who move up to management, they're out.  They are paid much less than US legacy carrier flight attendants, can be fired easily, and more importantly aren't there to make a career.  

The US legacy carriers in particular are saddled with many long-serving flight attendants.  These (mostly) women were sold on the idea that this job was a career, and a "glamorous" one at that, with long layovers in exotic places, traveling with intelligent, wealthy people.  But this idea flies in the face of what the job actually is.  A job that requires no education, not even any computer skillls, and has little pathway for advancement.  And a job that is protected by still powerful unions.  I've spoken to hundreds of flight attendants over the years, and have a good understanding of their thinking.  A great many are angry - angry at themselves for thinking this was going to be a career, angry at the airline for going bankrupt and stripping them of wages and benefits.  This anger manifests itself exactly as you've described - telling white lies to avoid any further work, reporting passengers as "disruptive" to the pilot, and even more egregious behavior. Many flight attendants refer to vacation-destination flights as "the flying Clampetts".  If they hate their job and their passengers, they should go.  But they can't, or don't.

If you look at what was Continental Micronesia, a separate company owned by Continental prior to the merger, and their labor situation it's like night and day.  This company was based in Guam, which while ostensibly the USA is more akin to the Philippines.  The Continental (and now United) flight attendants based in Guam are largely Chamorro or Filipino, and look at these jobs as a tremendous opportunity given their low educational level.  I've never heard a cross word or seen a scowl from these flight attendants.  They weren't sold a "dream" to be a "flight attendant" and see the world!  They were offered a great job, provided with the skills to do it, and pay that is much above what their fellow Guamians would receive under similar circumstances.

The legacy carriers; United and American especially, have a difficult situation.  They have a large number of angry flight attendants - the worst of which, because of seniority rules, get the longest, most profitable international routes where UA has to compete with happy flight attendants.  For the first time after the merger however I am sensing that UA management is now working to weed out the real troublemakers, something I can't recall them doing at all the last ten years.

This photo, UA 483 on October 23, 2012 from LAX/SFO had a purser who sat in this position the entire 80 minute flight, leaving only one of his colleagues to serve the full business class section.  I reported this incident (with photo) to UA, who for the first time in many years seemed generally concerned about fixing this problem.

Pursure.png


As for the inappropriate programming on the video.  I was successful in getting the "survival in the wild" show with Bear Grylls removed from the entertainment system - the bug eating during meal time was I thought a bit over the top.  However I know who to lodge a complaint with.  I'm quite convinced that a complaint to the general email complaint line gets barely a look, and usually a "pat on the ass" response.  This more than anything is something that United should consider fixing.  Jeff Smisek would discover a lot about his employees if they actually read and processed the complaints properly.<<
That really is it for a while, unless I do hear from United.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in National

From This Author

Just In