United Airlines just offered the sort of insult that may truly shock customers

What does this sort of thing say about a company? That it's relatively scruple-free?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
United Airlines plane in the air with city in the background

Just negotiating? 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It's a fascinating time for the development of corporate management skills.

As no one seems to know where the economy is going -- or even what it's currently doing -- many are trying to discern a trend. Or even the semblance of one.

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Perhaps one faint development involves how companies are treating their employees.

The workers, united, would like not to be insulted

Many were surely gripped recently when current Twitter CEO Elon Musk seemed to handle labor relations himself -- on Twitter -- with conspicuous (in)sensitivity.

This coincided with some United Airlines flight attendants contacting me and revealing a little of what's happening at the self-described biggest airline in the world.

Many airlines are currently in negotiation with their employee unions. Airlines are desperate not to pay too much, even though they've seen their revenue enjoy spectacular leaps.

United -- along with American Airlines and Southwest -- currently enjoys unhappy pilots and equally unhappy flight attendants.

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The latter are used to putting up with a lot. Salary-wise, they're near the bottom of the scale. Sold a life of relative glamor, they sometimes discover it isn't quite like that.

Yet United's latest contract proposal to its flight attendants appears to mine some difficult areas.

This is, perhaps, to be expected. Negotiations are, for many, all about what you can get away with.

Yet, having perused some of the highlights of the airline's current contract proposal to flight attendants, one clause may rankle basic human feelings: "Life insurance benefits not payable if Flight Attendant used disability benefits before death."

Please forgive me, but I read those words several times and could only think this: "What sort of human being even considers concocting this attempt at money-saving with a functioning heart?"

Naturally, I rephrased that question somewhat before asking it of United Airlines. A spokesman told me he couldn't comment on such details, but added: "We look forward to reaching a new agreement with the Association of Flight Attendants."

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I also contacted the AFA and will update, should I hear word.

The mere idea that an employer would try and deny a dead employee's family life insurance benefits because that employee had died while receiving disability benefits may seem quite twisted to many.

It may even verge on offensive, even though -- or, perhaps, especially because --  the airline is offering to increase disability benefits, "but offset by all other benefits paid."

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Clearly, many flight attendants are extremely upset about such maneuvers on the part of the airline. (People often contact me when they're upset.)

Those who have been at the airline a long time believe that their quality of life and the levels of pay have dropped exponentially since more civil times. In that, perhaps, they share the feelings of so many customers who feel the flying experience hasn't exactly improved over the years.

But after details of the airline's proposal emerged, United decided to make things better.

An email to the flight attendants from John Slater, senior vice president of inflight services, offered a soothing tack.

It read, in part: "The company is offering industry-leading wages and improving sections of the contract that hurt productivity."

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I'm not sure the word "improving" means quite the same to everyone concerned.

But then there was this. Slater offered the words of United CEO Scott Kirby: "The best airline in the world… is also going to be the place where it's the best pay. I will say that when we're at work, we're going to work. You know, we're not going to build featherbedding in and inefficiencies in. We're going to work."

You want negotiations or capitulations?

I know you'll tell me this is all part of the thrust and joust of employer union negotiations, but doesn't it come across as daddy telling a four-year-old they won't get any pocket money unless they get an A in all his school tests?

Indeed, I was given access to some private forum comments from United flight attendants, who read Kirby's words with deep disturbance.

Words and phrases that featured regularly were "robot", "quality of life," "rage", and "insulting." Some suggested that the only time they're doing nothing is when they're actually not being paid. Which bathes in a certain logic.

Many will have varying opinions on such feelings expressed. "What's wrong with working at work?" Some will snort. "Is the company really calling its own employees lazy?" Others will snort back.

Customers, too, may look upon this and believe it's just another day in labor relations. Or they might be shocked by the truths buried within the fuselage. It's odd, though, given that some airlines still claim they need more staff.

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Somehow, this may all seem reflective of a general degradation of labor relations. Why, even tech employees are now trying to form unions.

How much does treating your employees right -- oh, let's call it "with decency" -- and choosing words carefully really cost?

And how much, ultimately, does it benefit an airline to have employees who believe their hard work is rewarded with a tinge of respect?

I wonder if airline CFOs have an algorithm that can help them with that calculation.

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