My colleague Huggy Rao and I have been reading and writing about something called "felt accountability" in our scaling book. We are arguing that a key difference between good and bad organizations is that, in the good ones, most everyone feels obligated and presses everyone else to do what is in their customer's and organization's best interests. I feel it as a customer at my local Trader Joe's, on JetBlue and Virgin America, and In-N-Out Burger, to give a few diverse examples.
Unfortunately, one place I have not felt it for years -- and where it is has become even worse lately -- is United Airlines. I will forgo some recent incidents my family has been subjected to that reflect the depth at which indifference, powerlessness, and incompetence pervades the system. An experience that two of my friends -- Annie and Perry Klebahn -- had in late June and early July with their 10 year-old daughter Phoebe sums it all-up. I will just hit on some highlights here, but for full effect, please read the entire letter here to the CEO of United, as it has all the details.
Here is the headline: United was flying Phoebe as an unaccompanied minor on June 30th, from San Francisco to Chicago, with a transfer to Grand Rapids. No one showed-up in Chicago to help her transfer, so although her plane made it, she missed the connection. Most crucially, United employees consistently refused to take action to help assist or comfort Phoebe or to help her parents locate her despite their cries for help to numerous United employees.
A few key details.
1. After Phoebe landed in Chicago and no one from (the outsourced firm) that was supposed to take her to her next flight showed up. Numerous United employees declined to help her, even though she asked them over and over. I quote from the complaint letter:
The attendants where busy and could not help her she told us. She told them she had a flight to catch to camp and they told her to wait. She asked three times to use a phone to call us and they told her to wait. When she missed the flight she asked if someone had called camp to make sure they knew and they told her “yes—we will take care of it”. No one did. She was sad and scared and no one helped.
2. Annie and Perry only discovered that something was wrong a few hours later when the camp called to say that Phoebe was not on the expected plane in Grand Rapids. At the point, both Annie and Perry got on the phone. Annie got someone in India who wouldn't help beyond telling her:
'When I asked how she could have missed it given everything was 100% on time she said, “it does not matter” she is still in Chicago and “I am sure she is fine”. '
Annie was then put on hold for 40 minutes when she asked to speak to the supervisor.
3. Meanwhile, Perry was also calling. He is a "Premier" member in the United caste system so he got to speak to a person in the U.S. who worked in Chicago at the airport:
"When he asked why she could not say but put him on hold. When she came back she told him that in fact the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight. He was dumbfounded as neither of us had been told in writing or in person that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor services to a third party vendor."
4. Now comes the most disturbing part, the part that reveals how sick the system is. This United employee knew how upset the parents were and how badly United had screwed-up. Perry asked if the employee could go see if Phoebe was OK:
"When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help. My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help. 15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay."
This is the key moment in the story, note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help Perry and Annie. It was only when Perry asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference -- the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don't feel responsible for doing the right thing. We can argue over who is to blame and how much -- management is at the top of the list in my book, but I won't let any of individual employees off the hook.
5. There are other bad parts to the story you can see in the letter. Of course, they lost Phoebe's luggage and in that part you can see all sorts of evidence of incompetence and misleading statements, again lack of accountability.
6. When Anne and Perry tried to file a complaint, note the system is so bad that they wouldn't let them write it themselves and the United employee refused their request to have it read back to be fact-checked, plus there are other twists worth repeating:
We asked to have them read it back to us to verify the facts, we also asked to read it ourselves and both requests were denied. We asked for them to focus on the fact that they “forgot” a 10-year old in the airport and never called camp or us to let us know. We also asked that they focus on the fact that we were not informed in any way that United uses a third party service for this. They said they would “do their best” to file the complaint per our situation. We asked if we would be credited the $99 unaccompanied minor fee (given she was clearly not accompanied). They said they weren’t sure.
We asked if the bags being lost for three days and camp having to make 5 trips to the airport vs. one was something we would be compensated for (given we pay camp $25 every time they go to the airport). They said that we would have to follow up with that separately with United baggage as a separate complaint. They also said that process was the same—United files what they hear from you but you do not get to file the complaint yourselves.
7. The story isn't over and the way it is currently unfolding makes United looks worse still in my eyes. United had continued to be completely unresponsive, so Annie and Perry got their story to a local NBC TV reporter, a smart one who does investigations named Diane Dwyer. Diane started making calls to United as she may do a story. Well, United doesn't care about Phoebe, they don't care about Annie and Perry, but they do care about getting an ugly story on TV. So some United executive called Annie and Perry at home yesterday to try to cool them out.
That story was what finally drove me to write this because, well, if bad PR is what it takes to get them to pretend to care, then it is a further reflection of how horrible they have become. I figured that regardless of whether Diane does the story or not, I wanted to make sure they got at least a little bad PR.
I know the airline industry is tough, I know there are employees at United who work their hearts out every day despite the horrible system they are in, and I also know how tough cultural change is when something is this broken. But perhaps United senior executives ought to at least take a look at what happens at JetBlue, Virgin America, and Southwest. They make mistakes too, it happens, but when they do, I nearly always feel empathy for my situation and that the people are trying to make the situation right.