United Airlines: This is Not Spend Management

I had the unfortunate experience of flying into a snow storm last night in Chicago. As you can imagine, given the weather, I arrived at O’Hare quite late (about 6 hours late to be exact). I was flying my hometown airline -- United -- which many of you probably know has gone through some hard times recently. But unlike Delta (scroll down to the best practice study on their experience in the PDF), which has invested significantly in Spend Management programs to cut costs, it appears that United has focused its energies more on cutting into key positions to save its way out of bankruptcy. And if my experience last night is any indication, United has made the wrong spending decisions, relative to its peer from Atlanta.

Here's what happened. After a somewhat non-eventful and jovial flight -- the captain was an absolute hoot, and his humor almost compensated for the experience to follow -- we touched down onto a snowy runway. The landing was picture perfect. But the scene to follow was not. After taxing into "jail" around midnight, our captain notified us that our gate was not yet open (he was not laughing at this point, despite his previous good humor). A few minutes later, he elaborated in a somber tone that United did not have enough staff on-hand to push planes back from the gate (and later we learned that there was also a shortage of staff to move the jetways back and forth).

We sat, and sat, and sat. 2 1/2 hours later, the experience was finally over (when they finally rustled up some employees to move the previous plane out of our gate). During this time, we were not offered water or food of any kind (the supplies had been exhausted due to the 2 hour wait on the tarmac in Boston). You could sense the anger in the packed plane rising throughout the whole ordeal. Many agreed that it would have been better to stay the night in the previous city rather than waiting an extra 4+ hours in a packed 757. As we waited to disembark, there was grumbling up and down the isle. I heard dozens swear off ever flying United again (including a 1K flyer across the isle). You could also sense the dissatisfaction in the flight crew’s eyes as well, as they did the best they could in a situation which was entirely out of their control.

I hope that United learns from last night’s debacle. Rather than focusing primarily on cost-cutting through reducing essential staff to a skeleton crew, they should target bigger picture Spend Management items. For without doing this, despite the professionalism and good nature of their flight crews, they’re going to continue to lose customers. If I were United, I would be picking up the phone and hiring away Aaron Dent from Delta to get the right types of Spend Management programs started as quickly as possible before it's too late.

-Jason Busch

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