Today's United Report: 5 Ways of Thinking About an Airline

Perhaps the friendly skies are becoming friendlier?
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1) On Tuesday morning I wrote to United Airlines' media relations office about the incredible but apparently true story of a pilot who made an unscheduled landing at Chicago's O'Hare airport, on a flight from Denver to Baltimore, so that police could come aboard and take away parents who had complained about what they considered a risque and violent movie being shown on the overhead screens in front of their two small sons.

In my note I identified myself as a reporter; sent them the item I had done; gave them the real names of the complainants and the reported real name of the pilot; gave my phone and email contact info; and said I would give equal prominence to whatever they said in reply.

It is now the wee hours of Thursday morning, and ... so far nothing. I'll let you know if I ever hear back. Maybe United's CEO Jeff Smisek will address it in one of the promotional videos by him that all passengers get to see before take-off.

2) My wife and I flew from LAX to Dulles today, and thanks to our palmy Global Services status we got upgrades out of economy -- but with seats in separate rows.

We decided to be content with our good fortune and not to ask other people to switch so we could sit together. You will get the joke it you check here.

3) Illustrating that there are exceptions to every rule, the cabin crew who dealt with us today were friendly, relaxed, and with a sense of humor and adaptability, rather than seeming officious and put-upon. To anyone at United if you ever see this: I am talking about UA 653, LAX-IAD, on April 3, 2013.

On the other hand: the plane landed at 9:09, and the first bags appeared at 9:52, but ... this is travel. 

4) In the pre-roll house-ad video that United inserts before its safety instructions, there was a change from the now-familiar "let's hear from Jeff Smisek" feature. Instead it was a little tone-poem about how everyone at United knows that customer service comes first, that the impression they leave on customers determines the future of the airline, how nothing matters more than being caring and considerate, and so on. My main reaction was, Maybe they realize they have a problem, since it is the absence of precisely this attitude that, in my now-very-long experience, has distinguished United.

To be more precise, while the ground and flight crew of many Asian airlines act excited to be in the glamorous air-travel industry -- something not possible or credible in the North America industry; and while Southwest has its own jokey culture; and while Alaska Airlines has a small and attentive feel; and so on; my strong impression of United is that most of its employees don't seem very happy to be working there. They come across as beset by their twin enemies: management on one side and the surly traveling public on the other.

Here is an episode that crystallized this impression for me. Last year I was at Dulles for an early-morning flight to San Diego, which was delayed and then an hour after scheduled departure time was finally cancelled outright, for mechanical reasons. These things happen. A hundred people surged to the customer service desk to figure out options. (The auto- rebooking note I got from United rescheduled me for a flight nine hours later.) The woman at the desk saw the horde coming and began packing up. "I'm on break!" she said. "I've been here since six-thirty this morning!" Which of course is when the rest of us had arrived. Considerately, before leaving she did call to see if someone could replace her, as someone eventually did. I promise you, this happened just the way I am describing.

5) But maybe points #3 and #4 are signs of a culture change. America is the land of constant renewal and second and third chances, so I will hold that thought in mind about the new United. While also wondering if I'll ever hear about point #1 -- the pilot who decided that parents who complained about movies should be turned over to the police, and another 100-plus people on the plane should be delayed and diverted at the same time.

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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.

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