United is working toward something will be unimaginable to just about every frontline airline employee. It is planning on eliminating internal delay codes, those obnoxious things that help the airline decide whose fault it is that a flight is delayed. I know that this sounds very “inside baseball” — sorry to even bring up the “b” word, Dodger fans, since your team has forgotten how to play — but this is something that speaks more broadly to the airline, its culture, and how it is seen from the outside.
There are really two kinds of delay codes in airline land. The first is the external code which the Department of Transportation (DOT) reports out in its monthly consumer report. It looks something like this:
There are delays blamed on the airline, some on weather, others on the aviation system (air traffic contol), some on security, and yes, there are those blamed on late arriving aircraft. This is not changing. DOT requires that airlines submit this information, so United couldn’t change it even if it wanted to do so. This categorization also triggers whether an airline is required to pay for hotels, meals, etc if needed. That won’t change.
What will change is the blizzard of internal delay codes that travelers don’t see. United spokesperson Leslie Scott told me that the airline has over 100 internal delay codes that can get incredibly granular. The question you may be asking yourself is… why?
The rationale is two-fold. First, it allows the airline to look at things from a high level to see where there are problems that may need fixing. It helps the airline improve. But the darker side is that it enables the blame game by singling out those who create the delay and often punishing them for transgressions. Delay codes can be wielded for good or for evil, and evil has a way of triumphing.
United CEO Scott Kirby has made no secret of the fact that he wants to change the airline’s culture, and that it wasn’t going to be a simple task. Removing delay codes is actually a huge shift that could have quick, wide-ranging impact in a positive way. As Scott explained in a recent employee video:
… it’s become clear to me that my job is to give you the tools you need to continue to change how customers feel when they fly United and remove any obstacles that get in the way. And today we’re taking a big step towards transforming the way we measure success by eliminating most of our delay codes.
To me, this is a paradigm shift and a culture change. It’s about working together as a team without worrying about who is going to get blamed if there’s a delay. Most of the time the best answer for customers is still going to be getting the airplane off the gate D:00. But all of you know, there are times when waiting for connecting customers is the best answer. By getting rid of most delay codes, we want to give you the latitude to do the right thing based on the situation.
It’s the biggest operational change we will make all year and it will have a direct, positive impact on our culture and the way we serve customers. It also will take months to fully implement so I look forward to sharing updates with you along the way.”
This does not sound like the words of a former senior exec at American, but sure enough, Scott has found a new religion. D:00 — getting the airplane off the gate exactly on time or earlier — is no longer the gospel.
My guess is that most frontline United employees — and please comment below if you are one — still don’t believe this could possibly happen. Fighting over who is to blame is a time-honored tradition that has pit customer service agents against flight crews and both of them against rampers and maintenance for eons. If you’ve ever seen a customer service agent racing to close the door on time or arguing with a flight attendant as departure time nears, there’s a good chance that’s about trying to avoid a dreaded delay being assigned to them. The system has good intentions but it has very customer- and employee-unfriendly outcomes.
This system is so ingrained that it can’t just go away overnight. You have to untangle the web that has been created over many years and replace it with a new system that still achieves the goals of broader operational improvement.
Leslie explained to me that the company has already been testing this in hubs, but she wouldn’t go into further detail. It will be rolled out slowly as they figure out what will work and what won’t.
One thing that is clear is that United is trying to create more tools to help decide when to hold a flight and when to go, so that a delay doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the front line. I’ve written about ConnectionSaver before, and they continue to develop that tool. It’s an automated solution that will tell the agents when to hold a flight for connections and when not to hold. As the airline noted on its recent earnings call, during recent winter storms it was saving over 2,000 connections a day.
It’s also getting more proactive about potential delays and trying to move people to alternate options long before they leave on their first flight, if they can.
If United does it right, this change will have a real impact on culture, and that will spill over into a better customer experience. I know employees are taking a wait-and-see approach right now, and I’d do exactly the same. But even the most skeptical employee has to admit that even talking about this is a promising development.