United Airlines’ Controversial New Customer Feedback Program

Filed Under: United

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.

Customers will be able to share feedback through seatback entertainment

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.”

The AFA acknowledges that this initiative “may be well intentioned”

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?

Could a feedback loop help improve airline service?

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.

What do you make of United Airlines’ new feedback program?

Comments
  1. But you would think that most FAs are thick-skinned and discerning enough to know which complaints should be taken constructively and which are just unreasonable rantings.

  2. They’ll need thick skin for these passenger comments.

    I flew with BA as an F/A until taking Voluntary Redundancy recently as we had similar software where we could access passenger comments about flights we worked.

    So, they were all about the friendliness/professionalism/efficiency or lack there of, no?

    Many were. But there were also a lot complaining about the physical appearance of the FA’s, race, weight, age (a LOT of these), perceived sexuality – you name it. The software had a built in mechanism where certain words were detected and XXXX out but some people were creative with their spelling (or didn’t spell correctly in the first place). I hope United’s system is more robust.

  3. Did we learn nothing from Josh Cahill and Malaysia airlines and what a horrible situation he was in after giving feedback in the air? I, for one, won’t be giving feedback until I’m on the ground.

  4. While I do think it’s prudent to think about ways to mitigate the potential of momentary passenger frustration/overzealus reaction, making it easier to offer real-time feedback is overall a good thing.

    I imagine many complaints never actually get lodged because it’s too time-consuming after-the-fact to complain, the process to do so is not obvious to most passengers. Furthermore, people complain for the most part when they are actively frustrated, and not because a FA forgot ice in their Coke.

    It will also be quite easy to distinguish between things that are the FA’s fault and not the FA’s fault. If this results in more accountability for bad FA’s great. I can see why the union would be wary of that, but if there is a real dispute over whether something merits investigation and disciplinary action, the union will do its job.

  5. @JBM — Josh Cahill never gives a completely positive review. There’s always something wrong / bad for him. Be it the actual service, a seatmate, or something else.

    There are many travel bloggers out there; how is it that he always somehow finds himself being targeted? The common thread in most situations involving Josh Cahill is Josh Cahill himself, so it’s likely that he’s the problem.

  6. @ Duck Ling, you make a good point. I don’t think FAs will see comments in real-time, and that instead they will be read and collated and included, if relevant, into whatever personnel file UA keeps.

    UA should be able to distinguish legitimate criticism from hateful comments, and not include the latter. But I also hope that if there is a significant volume of that, UA will offer some kind of help/mental health support to the staff who actually has to read all of it.

  7. One can only hope. Nothing in the past decade has resulted in UA FAs conducting themselves in a way to show they value customers. Always exceptions but in my experience that is more the norm on UA.

  8. So… they point out that spur-of-the-moment feedback may be unbiased, and then immediately prompt their members to file incident reports as fast as possible. Seems borderline hypocritical.

  9. If they can fight through union, it would be at least some improvement for UA, as their service is really unfortunate now, everyone just treats it like a pure “job”, I would rather spending 30-50 dollars more domestically just to avoid flying UA; I also witnessed a first class passenger asked for help to fix the plug, the FA directly told the passenger quickly “No, we were told not to fix that as we might make it worse.” Cold and quick with no emotions. If it is on DL, I would imagine the FA will at least have a try to comfort the passenger even if she or he can do nothing. You get a feel that on DL, they are happy.

  10. Yay. More companies that think every interaction with a customer requires a survey. Just let me alone – I’ll give feedback if I have it. Don’t need to be constantly surveyed.

    That said – if I see a flight attendant asking customers to follow policy and mandates by wearing a mask, I would happily give them kudos / positive feedback for doing so.

  11. Well, if it’s feedback attached to the seatback ifen, it will eventually be a model where:
    1. On boarding, the passenger ID is associated with that seatback device.
    2. Standard, long-ass TOS/Waiver to use the device
    3. Feedback is announced as being aggregated and shared anonymously with cabin crew.
    4. Prior to that stage, however, feedback is collated with the airline’s data on the flyer. Is this person a racist? Drunk? Complains all the time? What kind of customer are we talking about?

    5. Both passengers and FAs lose

  12. I would suggest to United for this to go both ways sort of like Uber drivers can rate you, this will weed consistent misbehaving pax and FA can expect them.

  13. I’m curious as to what substantive change collecting this data will actually impact. Is UA somehow empowered to provide incentive or disincentive for its unionized employees as a result of feedback?

    Is the intent to link compensation, bonuses and performance reviews to this somehow? Will there somehow be disciplinary action tied to a pattern of negative feedback? My understanding is that none of those things are terribly applicable with how the industry is currently set up.

    As far as I can tell, the only real impact that arises from this is better situational awareness for management.

  14. I’d like to start being compensated for feedback beyond a “Thank you for your feedback” email. I’m inundated with requests for feedback from numerous companies with whom I interact – not just airlines/hotels, and I feel like I’ve never seen a positive change as a result of fairly common complaints (based on my anecdotal evidence, of course). Some of these surveys are also quite time consuming and detailed. I’d be more inclined to participate if I felt there was something in it for me beyond an empty promise to take my opinion into consideration. Specific to the airlines, they’re already kind of shafting all of us, so why should we take time out of our day to help them be more terrible?

  15. I’ve flown a lot of miles on a lot of airlines. Nearly all of the FA’s have been great. great. In the past 10 years I’ve flown exclusively on United. At first it was great but in the past few years it has gotten increasingly bad to the point that I am done with them. They are NOT the friendly skies any more. It’s not just the FA’s but it includes them. I’m going to cash in my travel rewards in for the trinkets in the sky all and turning in my credit card. Management needs to look beyond but include the FA’ instead of mere reviews on them. The whole airline is flying too close to the sun.

    I’m going with Delta

  16. I have observed too many passengers taking out their frustrations on cabin crew.
    Seats, upgrades, meal choice that the passenger is unhappy with of which cabin crew often have no immediate responsibility or any control over.
    I’ve even overheard other passengers taking out their frustrations about the weather and TSA on the cabin crew. After bad encounters elsewhere (even a fight with the significant other) and many are just looking for a target. Who is most often standing right in front of them?
    The cabin crew.

  17. @INS Vikrant – I disagree with you, in comparison to all those paid and sponsored bloggers out there he seems to show us the real non-bullshit world of travelling. I don’t think you can grow a channel this big and influential if you make these things up. Anyways, he is much more realistic than Sam Chui.

  18. Alaska has been doing this for a few years now, sharing the comments directly with flight attendants, gate agents, etc. You can submit a survey in real-time, they even solicit for it with alaskalistens dot com and a manager has 24-48 to review the comment and reply if necessary.

  19. It is not the flight attendants who need reviewed by passengers, but the gate agents who in my experience have always been condescending (especially to people of a different ethnicity than theirs). In my experience, the flight attendants have been kind, gracious and hard working and helped passengers who were humiliated by gate agents as my experience was with Delta. United agents were that bad too, but the flight attendant made up for the pain by her kindness. United was made aware of the situation, but other than a response that they will look into it, I have yet to hear back.

  20. During the merger between United and Continental Airlines, Continental dropped the 1- 800 we care 2 feedback line. I was able to use this number many times after being miss connected, delayed or once being verbally abused by a captain who had been handing out his political propaganda at the gate prior to boarding the plane.
    I think it’s a great idea.
    In most cases, people do their jobs and we all go on our separate ways.
    In some circumstances there are people who deserve recognition for going above and beyond. And unfortunately, there are situations where flight attendants have presented themselves as air marshals with a heavy hand.
    By the time you get off the flight with one of these individuals, it’s not as if you want to write a book report to the airline to report an A-hole.
    Unless United wants to hire “secret shoppers”, this should help them recognize problems in the air that can be avoided in the future.

  21. Maybe they should do something about the 2 1/2 hour hold times for Customer Service or the Customer Service reps that hang up on you that have passengers furious before they even board the planes. Once we use our flight credits for our canceled flight, I will never fly United again as long as I live.

  22. My only answer to any of their questions would have to be stop wasting money on all of this garbage and pass the savings on to us in our ticket prices.

  23. The question is what will be done as a result of the survey. Will passengers take this seriously? Will action be taken? etc or are they just going through the motions of doing it.

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