The Travel Adviser: Planes change – values don’t
During flights I saw microcosm of what United passengers, industry insiders have seen – honeymoon over before it started.
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
He was a Jew; she was a Catholic. The wedding took place on the beaches of Cabo
The bride & groom and all of the wedding party entered the
procession wearing sandals, with the waves lapping on the beach. Standing under
the huppa, a smile broke across my face when the Mexican Justice of the Peace
pontificated on their union.
Two people, two cultures, merging their
heritages. Not an easy road to success, I thought.
Conversely, I had six
flights in the 10 days I traversed the United States & Mexico, primarily on
During my flights I experienced a microcosm of what
United passengers and industry insiders have already identified – the honeymoon
was over before it started.
It’s been almost four months since United and
Continental combined in a multi-billion dollar deal to form the world’s largest
carrier, and the situation has worsened since they shifted over to a new
computer system on March 3.
We were a family of four departing on a warm,
humid night from Tel Aviv to Newark and on to Los Angeles.
flown since the merger, I was eager to see how the new arrangement was working
out. Two of us in business class, two in economy class.
Their aircraft, a
shining Boeing 777, had lie-flat beds in business class, personal video screens
throughout the plane and power outlets for my kids in economy class to listen to
their music. The crew was attentive, warm and embodied all that I remembered
We boarded on time, taxied down the runway and then
came to a full stop. A few minutes later the captain announced that someone on
board wasn’t well and had elected not to fly. Unfortunately getting him off the
plane and finding his luggage in the belly of the plane took over 90 minutes,
but one could not fault the airline.
Since I had reserved a four-hour
stop in Newark on our way to Los Angeles, I was quite secure we would make the
connection. If only I had known.
UP, UP and away. We finally took off,
and with all due respect to their well-known scrumptious cuisine, I was asleep
in 10 minutes and never tasted a morsel. The flight was uneventful; my kids said
their food was palatable, but were more impressed by the vast choice of
entertainment on offer. What amused me was the motto written on the napkins
proffered every time I was given a drink: “Planes change, values
I thought this an apt mission statement for the merged company.
Only later did I realize how true it was.
Arriving at Newark airport at
the crack of dawn, we sped through passport control, dropped off our bags and
meandered through a surprisingly busy United Airlines Terminal with a good hour
left before our flight. The boarding passes had been given to us at Ben-Gurion
We double checked the gate, saw the plane was scheduled to leave
on time. Boarding quickly, we took our seats on what appeared to be a rather new
Airbus 320. The crew seemed a bit more stern, a little older, but still very
professional. No doubt having to be at work at five in the morning for a 7:00
a.m. flight doesn’t thrill everyone.
But what he heard out of the cockpit
on this flight, though, was far less reassuring. “There is no way I can
fly this plane.”
Not a sentence you ever want to hear on a
plane. Fortunately it was followed fairly quickly with the reason: “I
can’t move my seat.”
Sitting up close I could see that these mutterings
were coming from the co-pilot. Going out to the galley, now in front of my seat,
he informed the flight attendants that his seat was locked all the way up and he
had no movement whatsoever. He would not sit squeezed against the windshield.
Seeing that I was observing the entire incident he came to my seat and explained
it would be impossible in such a situation to control the floor pedals in case
of an emergency.
The pilot came out and demanded a mechanic be called to
fix the seat. Many of us now were standing up, kibitzing. The pilot asked
whether we should be deplaned but was told it would be fixed quickly. Acting
just like his stereotype, a mechanic came on the plane, bent over, huffed and
puffed, and nothing happened.
Ten minutes later he left.
pilot was apoplectic. He told us the plane had landed in Newark Airport last
night with the broken chair. That it had been reported and that United had done
nothing about it. Several of the road warriors in business class opined that
what had rarely occurred with Continental was commonplace with United. Those
four simple words rattled again in my brain: Planes change, values
Querying further, I discovered to my amazement that flight crews
have not been merged. You will either get a complete Continental crew, or a
United crew. Trust me when I tell you that for the foreseeable future, you will
easily be able to spot the difference. Serious and sober best characterizes the
United flight attendants. Charisma is not a trait that one can ascribe to
The overall warmth that one feels from ex-Continental personnel, on
the other hand, appears to be truly genuine. Merging any two companies, with
their different cultures, is no easy task. Keeping their flight attendants
separate, though, is a sure-fire way to slow down the process.
pilot decided he had had enough and elected to have all of us deplaned. He said
that United would send us a new plane and told us to go over to the Customer
Service desk. That was a colossal waste of time. According to the latest
statistics from the US Transportation Department, United is the most complained-
about airline in America by far. Tickle me pink and add me to the
After a 30-minute wait, I reached the counter. Having counseled
clients over the years not to scream, and to remain calm, I simply asked if we
could be rebooked for a later flight.
She stared at me as if I had come
from another planet.
“Our flights are almost always sold out and there
are four of you.”
It need not be a non-stop flight, I meekly suggested;
we can fly to Los Angeles from your hub in Chicago or via Houston. “Planes
change, values don’t” echoed in my mind. I instantly asked her: was she
previously United or Continental? Like a peacock, she answered proudly, “I’m
After some furtive entries she told me I could either wait
six hours for the replacement plane or fly via Chicago and Denver, landing in
Los Angeles at 8:00 p.m. She was kind enough to point out that there were no
four seats available together and that all of us would be in middle seats. I
politely declined her generous offer, and was given four $6 vouchers to feed us.
I gave them to my kids and told them to go knock themselves out.
if all four of us could while away the time in their business lounge, and
requested a pass for our two nearly grown children. She chided me gently, saying
the United Customer Service desk had no connection with the United Club
So walking over to the lounge we lined up like good passengers
and attempted entry. No doubt used to unwarranted attempts to storm their
lounge, we were told in no uncertain terms that only two of us could enter their
My son and I gallantly decided to let the women go in,
and we went back to the gate to see what was happening.
After two hours
my wife decided she would switch with us and allow us to enjoy the quiet comfort
of the United Club. So, heading back to the club, we, with our two passes, were
stopped cold in our tracks.
“Where do you think you’re going?” inquired
the not-so-empathetic. We dutifully showed our boarding passes.
where Mrs. Feldman was, saying she was the only person permitted to accompany
me. When I pointed out that we had earlier used the passes to let my wife and
daughter in, she merely replied that under no circumstances could a pass be
My son backtracked out of there faster than a shooting star,
embarrassed to see his father chastised.
“Planes change, values don’t”
was now pounding inside my head.
A MERE five hours later, our plane took
off. Same crew, same plane, same clients. Again, the flight itself was smooth
and this time, knowing it was a pure United flight crew, my expectations were
tempered. I made certain my seat was completely upright when we took off and
dared not have any electrical devices operating when we landed. In other words,
a most compliant passenger.
The rest of our trip was filled with the
wedding in Mexico and taking advantage of the weak US dollar and doing our
utmost to support the US economy. On our return trip to Tel Aviv we again
experienced the split personality which characterizes United; a United Air crew
to Newark and an ex-Continental crew to Tel Aviv.
At Newark airport, when
we checked in again for the flight to Tel Aviv, the women were so friendly I
felt obligated to thank them and ask if they were originally from Continental.
Our check-in clerk immediately lit up and with a beaming smile informed me that
of course she was ex-Continental and that whenever she worked at Newark airport,
she preferred being with other employees of her ilk.
To be equitable to
United senior management, which has already integrated personnel, they have a
daunting challenge ahead of them. Frequent fliers will no doubt point out that
I’m not being completely forthright in what actually appears on their
“Planes change. values don’t” is followed by: “Your priorities
will always be ours.”
Our priorities, you assert, and the priorities of
all fliers, are safety, comfort and service. Two out of three, United, isn’t
going to cut it. Fliers today have choices. They vote with their feet. Charging
$100 for a second suitcase on transatlantic flights when your competitors charge
30% less isn’t going to cut it. While other airlines permit frequent flier
members from Silver level up to check a second suitcase for free on
transatlantic flights and one free inside the US, United elects not
El Al permits eligible passengers to bring one guest with them to
their business lounge, United shows no such largesse.
In Israel, we’re
fortunate, though. Every single employee of United Airlines is an ex-Continental
worker. Their values have not changed. But like one mixed-marriage couple tying
the knot, I am optimistic that they have the Right Stuff.
Mark Feldman is
the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.
For questions & comments, email him