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United Airlines New Controversial New Customer Feedback Program

Date: April 9, 2021

Ben Schlappig, OneMileAtATime

I’m curious to see if this ends up proving helpful or not…

United Airlines tests real time surveys

United Airlines is taking an interesting new approach to feedback. With this, the airline will introduce new methods for soliciting feedback, and also new ways that this feedback will be shared with flight attendants.

First of all, United Airlines will start soliciting feedback through real time surveys. That means during the travel experience you’ll have the ability to complete surveys about your flight directly through the United app or through the seatback entertainment. You’ll be asked about various aspects of your experience, including the service.

There’s more, though — United Airlines will start more directly sharing feedback with flight attendants from the flights they worked. This is starting as a trial, with Chicago and Honolulu based flight attendants being the first to receive this feedback.

As United Airlines explains this program in a memo to flight attendants:

By sharing this flight-specific feedback with each onboard crew, you’ll be able to see the impact you’ve made on each customer’s experience and we’ll be able to better recognize you for it. It’s important to note that this is not meant to be punitive, and instead, we’re working to provide more transparency into the feedback we hear from customers.

It’s not surprising that the intent here (at least initially) is to share more positive feedback than anything.

It’s claimed that in 2020, United flight attendants received over 20,000 compliments, and that compliments exceeded complaints at a 20:1 ratio. I can’t even begin to make sense of that, because it suggests that United received only 1,000 complaints about flight attendants in 2020, which would be around three per day. Strange.

What United’s flight attendant union says

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which is the union representing United flight attendants, has now chimed in on this new program. The AFA is addressing the concept of real time surveys, rather than the concept of feedback being shared with flight attendants.

Here’s the concern United’s flight attendant union has:

While the program is geared to focus on constructive or positive feedback, we all understand that this also offers an opportunity for less positive responses as well. We’ve all been in situations where we get frustrated, and after some time and perspective feel differently. The instant gratification of this concept could lead to potentially negative reports that lack objectivity.

The union is reminding flight attendants to file incident reports on the spot when things go wrong, so that flight attendants can share their perspectives:

Having said this, it’s a good time for a reminder on the importance of completing an IOR when required and when we feel our perspective on a particular interaction needs to be accurately documented. It’s important for us to take actions necessary to give a clear picture of any questionable interactions.

The union acknowledges that this initiative “may be well intentioned,” but says that it’s “easy to see how misunderstandings can occur during our typical work days.” The note finishes by stating that it’s “prudent to take the steps to make sure we are not at a disadvantage due to the unintended feedback that may result from this new program.”

My thoughts on United’s new feedback program

The concept of United Airlines’ feedback program is commendable. Looking at the US airline industry more generally:

  • The lack of a real feedback loop is one of the major reasons there’s so much inconsistency when it comes to service at US airlines; flight attendants don’t have much accountability
  • In addition to the lack of a feedback loop, another major issue is that not much is actually done with feedback, or at least it doesn’t have many implications; flight attendants generally aren’t rewarded for good service, since seniority is the most important metric in terms of pay, bidding, job security, etc.
  • Nonetheless lots of flight attendants do an exceptional job, not because they’re incentivized to do so, but rather because they just choose to come to work happy every day and give their all
  • While there are definitely situations where this might not work as intentioned, it’s still a great concept — it allows people to provide real-time feedback, and also allows flight attendants to hear what passengers think, both positive and negative
  • I do wonder if this is the ideal time to launch a concept like this though, since at this very moment flying isn’t really about the service; are passengers going to give flight attendants bad ratings if there’s no drink service (due to company policy), or if the flight attendants ask passengers to wear their masks?

Bottom line

United Airlines is doing something innovative (at least among US airlines) when it comes to soliciting feedback. The airline will be seeking instant feedback from customers through surveys in the app and the seatback monitors, and then that feedback will be shared with crews.

I think this is a step in the right direction, as a feedback loop can be valuable. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s not much of an incentive to provide great service, but baby steps.


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