Leadership In The Skies

February 8, 2008

in Flying Hell Commentary

To: United Pilots
From: MEC Communications
Re: Profiles of Leadership

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, we should all take a moment to reflect on what makes great leaders — not only the leaders of our nation, but those leaders who make a difference in our everyday lives.

At United Airlines, there are managers and there are leaders. Managers track absences, fuel burns, APU usage, and brake releases. They question pilots’ decisions, ignore contracts, spin facts and generally do whatever it takes to put other people’s money into their own pockets. Leaders remember that our company is a service industry; that safety, service, integrity and responsibility bring back customers. Because of our responsibilities, pilots are leaders of this company. To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt, it is not the manager who counts. The credit belongs to the pilots who are actually in the arena, whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strive valiantly and actually strive to do the deeds; who know great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spend themselves in a worthy cause; and who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement.

United could be a great place to work given the right circumstances and incentives. The following is only one example of how leaders, not managers, make this airline run.

A Glimpse of the Friendly Skies
By Captain XXX XXXXX, A-320 SFO
On a leg home from Denver last December, we had some VIPs on board who seemed as excited to meet us as we were them. The President of The Greatest Generation Foundation, www.tggf.us, was on our flight traveling out to HNL through SFO with a number of Pearl Harbor veterans. All of these gentlemen stopped by the cockpit, crowding in, in twos and threes to take a quick look, introduce themselves, and shake our hands. Among them was an Air Corps vet who flew B17s, 24s and 29s during World War II. He was impressed by all the glass, but stated for the record that he preferred round dials; who was I to disagree? According to the TGGF President, these gentlemen hadn’t been back to Pearl since the end of the war, but they would be front and center for the festivities this year.

As pushback time approached, a flashing ACARS message got our attention; almost never good news. Our minor EDCT delay had been modified for the worse and it would be at least an hour before takeoff. The low clouds at home were backing up the system again. A little research confirmed our fears: these guys were not going to make it to Hawaii tonight as they would miss the last flight out of SFO. Would UA delay the HNL flight? Not likely. There was some hope though, if everyone could pull together and make it happen.

We sent an ACARS note to Dispatch asking them to involve the ATC Coordinator, explaining the nature of the assembly we had aboard. As the leader of that group waited in the cockpit with us, a look of concern on his face, a message came back: “How soon can you be ready?” A plan had been hatched to add a few minutes of delay to five other flights so that ours could be greatly reduced. Our new EDCT came from Dispatch along with the plea: “don’t miss it!” Everyone involved from our flight attendants, CS, and Ramp jumped into action and we made our departure slot.

Our little piece of the Friendly Skies ran like a first-rate airline that night, LCO or not. Everyone involved stepped up and did their part efficiently and with purpose. During the fast run to the west coast, as I keyed in our request for assistance at SFO, Dispatch sent us another note. Everyone was in the loop already and would be awaiting our arrival. Our gate assignment put us directly across from the HNL flight and CS would be there to serve as escort, we were told. After my flying partner greased our jet onto 28L, we arrived at the gate to find everything in place. A smiling CS supervisor was in fact waiting in the jetway holding a stack of boarding passes.

The best part of this story is still to come. It turns out that back in Denver, one of United’s Global Services customers overheard the travel plans and the importance of the trip our veterans were on. This anonymous person got involved and stepped up as well. Those boarding passes awaiting our arrival were all First-Class upgrades, paid for by this customer.

Many take for granted the incredibly complex task of providing safe transit that pilots perform day and night, flight after flight. From my perspective, as Flight Officers we played the usual leadership role, which is critical to safety as well as to the customer experience. What was special this night was that our extra efforts were well-received early on, which led to effective coordination and a better solution. Employees across the system were eager to help, motivated by the desire to honor this deserving group of veterans.

For me this was a glimpse of what our airline could be like every day for every passenger. We have the equipment, the facilities, and, most importantly, the people to provide this level of service and attention on every flight. Unfortunately, such a renewal of enthusiasm across this company would require a level of genuine appreciation, motivation and leadership from the top that is sorely lacking today. My hope is that we do experience this renewal, and sooner rather than later. For a couple of hours, this was a great place to work.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Burrill July 15, 2008 at 8:13 am



Mack October 27, 2009 at 9:55 am

I used to schedule pilots at UAL.

While this is a nice story, certainly not all pilots are leaders. Some – not all – are real a-holes who made our jobs as schedulers pains in the drain. And not all managers at UAL are the money-grubbing jerks you make them out to be.

Just another side of the story …


College Kid November 4, 2010 at 11:33 am



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