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A United Airlines pilot made a big speech to passengers. Not everyone will love it

In the middle of horrendous airline unreliability, what's the best way for airline employees to communicate with passengers? Is it this?
chris-matyszczyk
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on
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Kindness wins?

(A screenshot from a United ad.)

Chris Matyszczyk/Screenshot

Airlines haven't done a fine job of communicating with their customers lately.

Their chosen method, most often, has been not to communicate with their customers at all. They prefer telling them that hold times for customer service will be four hours. Or more. So, good luck.

I was moved, then, by the behavior of one United Airlines captain who believes he should welcome passengers in a very particular way.

Captain Dave Tuck doesn't sound like any ordinary captain. He says he'd like to do a TED Talk one day on his LinkedIn profile. What might it be about? How not to run an airline?

The tuck rules

On that same LinkedIn page, however, he posted a video of the way he greets passengers. Not on the plane, where announcements from the cockpit can sometimes seem rote and cold, but at the gate.

Turning toward the passengers, he says: "I'm personally responsible for your safety. I make time to come out and look everyone in the eye because I want to acknowledge your presence."

Many will appreciate these words. Some, though, may think it sounds like a San Francisco cult meeting. Or, perhaps, a TED Talk by a psychologist.

Tuck thanks the passengers for their business and explains they put money on his family's table. He hints they eat a lot. It's a dad joke, and the passengers laugh.

Then comes a slightly more strident passage. Tuck explains he spent thirty years in the military and put together "some very high-functioning teams."

Perhaps, some might think, he should immediately be promoted to United CEO. But then an interesting progression: "Since there's more of you than there is of us in this uniform, I need you on my team. Is everybody OK with that?"

Many may find this uplifting. It's a captain showing that the passengers are part of the experience. Some, though, may wonder about the tone.

Is the notion of being co-opted to a team by a United Airlines captain something that warms the heart? Or might one or two people think: "You know what, I've paid a lot of money for this flight. I've paid for your team to do their jobs and do it well. I just want you to get me there, vaguely on time."?

Moreover, before I join a team, I'd like to know about its strategy, its ambition, whether its pilots think the airline is the absolute worst and whether its flight attendants are so angry at their bosses that they're beginning to score them on a weekly basis.

What, indeed, does it mean to be on a team these days, when too many managers and CEOs have spouted team philosophies while personally reaping too many benefits and leaving their employees in their wake -- and spying on them as they work from home?

Also: Are you ready for the worst Economy Class airline seats in the world?

Be kind. Even if we're late

At this point, though, Tuck reaches cruising altitude.

"Let's be kind to each other," he says. "You've got to fight traffic. You get the shakedown when you go through security. You didn't ask for that, but you've still got to deal with it."

On the plane, continues Tuck, "you feel like you're on your own and no one cares." This does, quite accurately, sum up how many people feel about airlines, especially now.

"Well, not on this one. Not while I'm in charge. Just know I've got your back," he insists. "So let's be kind. Let's work together as a team."

It sounds both charming and idyllic, except for the team part. He could have stopped at kindness.

But then, a controversial subject: "Things are getting better. We don't have to wear these masks anymore, but if you choose to, you have my full support. I lost a cousin to this disease, so I get it."

Also: An airline was sick and tired of airport luggage chaos. Its solution was brilliant

You had me at your story. You don't need more hard sell

By now, he really has the audience. He's made it personal. He's shown sensitivity.

But his final flourish is, well, quite something: "I want this to be the best flight experience that you've ever had."

This is hardly likely, given that it's in a narrowbody plane with, very likely, not a single empty seat. Then again, perhaps Tuck is merely echoing his own CEO, who insists United's intention is "to really establish ourselves as the biggest and the best airline in the history of aviation."

Sir, how many flights have you canceled this year?

Still, Tuck concludes that this is "an experience that we all share, and we're all in this together." In that, he's surely right, and it's good to hear it from the man in charge.

It's easy to admire Tuck's intentions. He explains: "As an airline captain, I make such announcements at the departure gate before boarding in order to introduce myself, welcome my passengers, and to set a tone of kindness, empathy, and teamwork."

Yet the way to make passengers really feel like they're on the team isn't to just demand it of them. You have to create the sort of environment where they want to volunteer.

Tuck is trying to set the tone, but airlines have largely failed to do this for far too long. Because, it's seemed to many, they just want your money.

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