The Unfriendly Skies: The Great Efficiency Fallacy


Last week, for his ninetieth birthday, I took my father across the country to meet his newly-minted twin great-grandsons and to show him around the region of Oregon our kids have made their home. Though he is reasonably healthy, dad had not flown in fifteen years, thus I was understandably apprehensive prior to and during the trip regarding his health and stamina for the long travel days. Fortunately, dad did remarkably well, thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and we all will cherish the memories and photos that resulted.
Unfortunately, our experience with the new United Airlines following their merger with Continental was anything but pleasant and I personally will not fly United again unless another carrier is unavailable. Despite good weather along all legs of our trip both out and back, the four flight segments were plagued with delays (pilot stuck in Boston), last minute cancellations (air traffic control), re-booking (please go to our website – sorry, no empty seats until tomorrow – don’t forget to extend that rental car), last minute gate changes (three times in two hours), seat assignments that put us in different rows (in the middle seats), luggage that missed flights (it might be here in ninety minutes if you want to wait), and holding patterns late at night in perfectly good weather. Basically everything I didn’t want to happen while traveling with my elderly father.
I’m sure that somewhere in the United corporate structure there are efficiency experts who have gotten awards for squeezing yet another drop of profit out of the business, but these drops are increasingly coming at the expense of customer convenience and satisfaction and will soon be negated by travelers like me who will now avoid the airline. To be fair, I must say that nearly all front-line United employees I spoke with while working the continuous string of problems were sympathetic and helpful, but were also quite disgruntled with the newly-merged company.  It was pretty easy to pry loose their true feelings using a little empathy.
On paper, in the air-conditioned comfort of an office building, every extra smidgen of efficiency must look great to the bean counters. Every airplane, gate, seat, baggage carousel, pilot, crew, and ground support person are being utilized at a high percentage. Huzzah! It is a great thing! … But not in practice. Systems in the real world need some margin to run smoothly, to be able to recover gracefully when things don’t go as planned. Remove all that margin, which United is attempting to be best at, and you can no longer recover. The customer is the biggest loser in this game, having to deal with the myriad of hassles.
So here’s my deal, United: I’ll give you a little extra margin by flying someone else.