United Airlines Faces Steep Ascent In Not-So-Friendly Skies Beset by a record of flight delays, dismal passenger satisfaction and widespread tech glitches, the nation's second-largest airline is seeking ways to restore customer confidence and employee morale.
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United Airlines Faces Steep Ascent In Not-So-Friendly Skies

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United Airlines Faces Steep Ascent In Not-So-Friendly Skies

United Airlines Faces Steep Ascent In Not-So-Friendly Skies

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On this planet, United Airlines does not rank too well when it comes to passenger satisfaction. Actually, it's one of the worst. The company forced its CEO out earlier this month because of a corruption scandal. Now the new leader has promised to improve customer service for disgruntled passengers and morale for frustrated employees. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Stepping off his recent flight from Boston at Chicago's O'Hare airport, education consultant Debashis Sengupta looked a little surprised.

DEBASHIS SENGUPTA: The flight today was actually quite nice, no problems at all - in fact, not something I was expecting from United.

SCHAPER: This frequent flier says an uneventful on-time flight from United is the exception, not the rule.

SENGUPTA: Right off the bat, disclosure that I'm not a fond customer of United at all.

SCHAPER: Why is that? Is that based on experience?

SENGUPTA: Yes, yeah, I've never had a good flight experience.

SCHAPER: The 53-year-old Sengupta says he feels packed in like sardines on United's planes. And the flights, he says, are very often delayed. Another frequent flier, 49-year-old Kathy Karlesses of Philadelphia, says she finds flying United...

KATHY KARLESSES: Not that great. Yeah, they're on-time performance is pretty dismal, and service in the air is nothing special.

SCHAPER: Karlesses says she, too, was shocked when her United flights are not delayed. Government figures show the nation's second-largest airline consistently lags behind its competitors in on-time performance. In July, more than a quarter of United's flights arrived late. Only Frontier and Spirit Airlines were worse. In the latest J.D. Power Airline Quality Survey, United ranks dead last among major carriers in customer satisfaction. Karlesses says she's considering taking her business elsewhere.

KARLESSES: I'd think they would make it easier for me to stay loyal, but they're making it, like, painfully hard to stay.

VICKI BRYAN: Every way that you can measure an airline's performance, they fail.

SCHAPER: Vicki Bryan is an airline industry analyst for Gimme Credit. She says United's troubles extend beyond flight operations to its website, its reservation and check-in systems and employee relations. And she says that's costing the airline.

BRYAN: They have ceded market share in the most lucrative kinds of passenger segments - you know, the business class customer.

SCHAPER: In a recent email to frequent fliers, United's new CEO, Oscar Munoz, acknowledged customer service and reliability troubles, saying, we can do better. And in a conference call the day he took over the beleaguered airline, Munoz told analysts the company needs to improve service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OSCAR MUNOZ: At the front of everything we do is, we have to realize that we have millions of human beings traveling on our equipment, and they're trying to get someplace, either a business or a family event. And we just got to think of a service excellence model that all of us can work together.

SCHAPER: Already, United is simplifying some of its domestic routes to help minimize delays that tend to ripple across the country when bad weather hits. A United spokeswoman says the airline has also made recent investments in improving food, frequent flier clubs, facilities and operations. But in addition to winning back customers, United must also find a way to boost the morale of its workers.

SARA NELSON: Employees are incredibly upset.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

NELSON: The crews have to put up with the same sort of pains that the passengers are, and the crews are really the passengers' best advocates. They see, on a daily basis, what passengers are going through. And I hear from flight attendants all the time saying, all I have to do every single day is say I'm sorry.

SCHAPER: Five years after United and Continental merged, 24,000 flight attendants as well as United's 9,000 mechanics are still without a new unified contract. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago

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