United Tries to End the Blame Game By Retiring Delay Codes


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.

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27 comments on “United Tries to End the Blame Game By Retiring Delay Codes

  1. I haven’t worked in the airline industry, but this makes sense to me, and I’ve seen enough in other industries that it’s not hard to imagine how the internal delay codes likely play out at United.

    From an “upper management” / “MBA” side, the delay codes make sense on the surface, as the old adage is that, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure,” and delay codes allow management to (on the more positive end of the spectrum) analyze delays and fix root causes, but also to (on the negative end) assign responsibility (rightly or not) and punish those deemed responsible for delays.

    Anyone who has ever worked in a big company knows how stuff like this works in practice, however, and how these systems often create flawed incentives… With metrics like this, you have front line managers and employees playing internal politics and engaging in CYA games, arguing amongst themselves at the times when they are most needed to help customers. People who get promoted often aren’t necessarily the best leaders, or those who deliver the best customer service (or best operational performance, or best improvements in things like those), but rather the people who are the best at playing internal politics and working the system.

    In the end, United customers don’t care at all which United department “caused” a delay, they just want to get where they are going safely and on time, and with any delays or issues promptly communicated and addressed by the gate agents and others. Watching employees argue or undermine each other in front of customers is also (obviously) a very bad look. Take care of the customers first, then work in the behind the scenes and across departments to identify and correct the root causes later.

    1. Well put Killroy, I couldn’t say it better. This part stuck out to me… “People who get promoted often aren’t necessarily the best leaders, or those who deliver the best customer service (or best operational performance, or best improvements in things like those), but rather the people who are the best at playing internal politics and working the system.”

      You just described the last 50-years of Sears in a nutshell.

      1. I completely agree. I work in manufacturing and KPI (key performance indicators) are the lifeblood of bonuses and promotions. Some managers are great at actually improving performance, some are just great at playing the game. My specific role is in quality and if you usually see an unexplained rise in performance there is often a drop in quality. And quality here is the voice of the consumer.

        If United is trying to climb the airline satisfaction rankings this is the right step. No doubt there will be a drop in quantitative scheduling performance, but that’s not what the customer cares about.

  2. I work for a different airline, but I am reminded of a time when I, along with five or six other nonrev passengers, were ushered into the jet bridge so they could “close the door” and THEN figure out which of us could get seats on the plane.

  3. Cranky, will this apply to just mainline or will it include UAX? I’ve seen some pretty heated exchanges as CSRs try to blame contract crews for delays. On the other hand I could also understand keeping it as a metric to hold contract airlines or even third-party ground crews accountable for avoidable delays.

    1. Chicago Chris – I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d bet it would apply to everyone with a United paint job. Otherwise it doesn’t really work.

  4. At the end of “Star Trek IV – the Voyage Home”, Dr. McCoy uttered these words (paraphrasing), “The bureaucratic mind is the one constant in the universe…” To me, anything that injects a little more common sense into bureaucracies and their often rigid procedures should be welcomed.

  5. The end of finger pointing is one thing, but Customer Service still needs the tools to take care of the passengers. Agents need training, skills and empowerment to assess and address each individual customer’s needs, especially during Irregular Operations. I think Mr. Kirby is stepping in the right direction. I cannot imagine how potent United would be if Mr. Bethune was at the helm. He turned Continental from a laggard in nearly all operational and customer service criteria into a powerhouse in a remarkably short time. And he did it with a truly cobbled-together workforce from widely divergent airline backgrounds. He focused on Teamwork and he succeeded beautifully. I believe there was a book written about his cultural, operational and customer service improvements titled “From Worst To First”. Well worth a read regardless of your industry.

  6. Interesting move. This looks to be a benefit for employees and will be quite disruptive to those managers who have made their careers out of number-chasing and gaming the system.

    Over at Alaska, the recently-promoted CEO instituted the culture of obsessive delay code tracking and turn timeline adherence about 15 years ago. It has since become the airline’s actual religion. The First Class prayer cards might as well have been swapped out with the turn timeline.

    It has created a perverse incentive culture, particularly among upper management. Many a manager met their demise by questioning the sacred texts. Nearly every member of senior management spends the majority of their work weeks engaged in preparation and presentation of their department’s performance at weekly “performance leadership” meetings. Most of those manager’s teams will tell you that their work is engaged in soothing their boss’s anxieties about this exact meeting. Nothing – not even a plane crash – could be more terrifying to these managers than getting yelled at by an executive in this meeting.

    It has turned into a gauge of those who are best suited at soothing their boss’s egos. The airline dedicates the vast majority of it’s operational analysis into this one, very specific “metric” (on-time performance). Given the future of data and the investments that larger airlines are making into more holistic views of their operation, Alaska’s “on-time is everything” mindset will come at the expense of data-driven opportunities to improve the operation in other areas.

    It has myopically narrowed upper management’s focus into placing on-time performance above nearly any other consideration. By design it quite INTENTIONALLY pits workgroups against each other, all out of the mindset of MBAs who cut their teeth in the 1980s that “competition” drives “success” in any situation. Increasingly demoralized frontline employees who are 30 seconds late on any one of hundreds of timeline metrics are hauled before an inquisitor and are required to explain themselves.

    And all of this because the new CEO considers it his Golden Calf and nobody dare question it. It’s not healthy. And it’s no longer as relevant as it was 15 years ago.

    Kudos to Mr. Kirby for his courage in recognizing the changing data and operations environment and looking for new solutions. There will be rough patches. But it shows that sometimes dogma should be examined and reconsidered.

  7. Cranky,

    Slightly off topic.

    If an inbound aircraft was late arriving because of a mechanical or crew scheduling (airline issue) , and because it was delayed arriving, it then got delayed further or cancelled because of weather, how would that show in the DOT report?

    I am asking because as you note “This categorization also triggers whether an airline is required to pay for hotels, meals, etc if needed.”

    I have been caught several times in this situation and it seems that the airline always uses the cover of weather even if the event that triggered the cancellation was the late arriving aircraft issue so they don’t have to pay meals, accommodations, etc.

    Just curious

    1. Keith – I don’t know the answer to that. This is something that happens regularly so presumably there is some procedure that gets used to determine how to assign the codes, but that’s a question for an ops person.

      1. There’s two operational departure times from a delay coding perspective, there’s the published departure time from the schedule, and then there is a station chargeable time based upon a fixed “turn time” window set by the aircraft’s block time at a station. It varies by aircraft type, namely wide or narrow body. So a station can exceed the scheduled departure time and still turn an aircraft within the allowable turn time for it’s type without incurring a station chargeable delay. If the departure exceeds both, the delay coding would include both the late arrival code and the stations reason for delaying it further.

    2. DOT delay rules guides the airlines to take the greater of the 2 delays. Whichever is longer is considered the root cause in the delay universe. Now you can make an argument saying if because of the mechanical delay my flight was 2 hour late then got hit with weather. Had the plane been here on time, my flight would have missed the weather and thus would have been gone by the time the weather came in. Until the government changes its delay code guidance and has more rules or regulation on how delays are coded, I don’t see anything changing. The connect saver tool is really a game changer. Why leave 5 mins early arriving 20 mins early and leave 20 people behind for the sake of on time departure? If the flight is arriving 20 mins early, wait for the people and leave 20 mins late and arrive exactly on time. Wish they would’ve come up with this years ago.

  8. Back when I was new to UAL, I was at ORD trying to learn the operation. I was in a jetway watching them load a 727 for LGA. The counter folks were loading a few extra passengers after the departure time since there a maintenance delay in progress. At the time that last department off the plane bought the whole delay. I noticed a kitchen foreman (UAL still owned them then) came up the jetway stairs with about a dozen breakfast meals (again back when that was the norm). Just as he came through the jetway door, he saw the mechanic coming out of the cockpit. He said to no one in particular, “I’m not buying this delay.” and promptly turned around and went back down the stairs. The mechanic was off by now and the cabin door shut. Maintenance was charged with the delay. I learned that customer service lost that day.

    Some years later, UAL tried the warm and fuzzy don’t blame delay process. It lasted about a month because nobody was in a hurry to get off the airplane. Maintenance and fueling took longer and the jetway door didn’t quickly either. Things went back to normal shortly after that.

  9. OMG Crankster, I was an airline neophyte at HP, yet nominally leading the LAX station in 1983. We were ground handled by AA. The aircraft was loaded, passengers and bags. And the rampers were standing around. The flight was delayed inbound, but ready to go after the turn ahead of the scheduled ground time. I stormed down the jetway stairs to request that we get the A/C rolling. I was told by the crew chief that they still had their scheduled ground time. I was astonished / pissed / angry that people wouldn’t do the right thing and push the A/C on time. But the mentality of not servicing the passenger first was an anathema to me. So this article was a reminder of the way things shouldn’t have been, but got that way because of management and labor failure to recognize what is their purpose … serve the passenger. So kudos to Mr. Kirby for taking action for the good of the passenger.

  10. I just don’t even know what United will be without poisonous, vicious backstabbing and finger pointing. They liked to play games like put the delay on the last group to complete a required task, which for our regional was always the pilots because our last task was the “prior to push checklist” which required cabin and cockpit doors closed and was supposed to require a push clearance received. Maintenance delay? Pilots were late with their checklist. No gate agents? Pilots again. It took an hour for de-ice to arrive? It’s that late checklist for a pilot delay. We could look in the window of the rampers’ break room and see them watching the Bears game and they only come out during commercials? Those darn regional pilots again! Their ramp would ask us to drop the brake after door closure so they could pull the plane in to the tug’s cradle and we could perform our checklist before getting push clearance, then their management would turn and fine us for dropping the brake early and so starting the pay clock at a non-contractual time. That was right up there with “we empower you to make the right delay decision to accommodate late passengers” paired with “your regional contract is tied to performance metrics and we will fine you for failing to meet them.” Then there was the gate… Lord help any agent who didn’t close the door 10 prior to departure. The Deuce was always super nose-heavy and it was always a wait-and-see to know if there was enough cargo in the back to offset all the people in the front. But they couldn’t wait and see, because the door had to be closed. So if we estimated, say, at least 46 people but maybe all 50 they’d kick off four then and there. Sooooo many times it’d be late at night, last fight to a destination, and we’d say “hey the numbers are back, we can take 50” and they’d have already sent people to a hotel. It will give me great pleasure to know that that old United is dead and buried, and a good one risen in its place.

  11. As one of the authors of United’s ConnectionSaver logic, tell your readers who choose United, we have their back when connecting thru our hubs. Connections Matter! Making sound, common sense decisions around our customers is at the forefront of our cultural transformation forward.
    Piggybacking on our CSaver logic, we’ll continue leveraging our massive data systems in providing on the spot real-time decision making capabilities to include our originating customers (even Freight or Mail) without the threat of a delay code spoiling any part of that process. We know there is a balance to all of this, but a pass of fail determined by a minute or two departure delay will no longer be part of that equation. AAL and DAL know exactly what I’m talking about.

    1. I’m happy to hear that there is a good logical metric working on this front.

      Once as a youngin flying USAir we were waiting at the gate to depart on the last flight of the night and the pilot came on and said that they were delaying our departure to allow connecting passengers to make the flight. I and the other passengers were tired and we audibly booed at this news. That was one of those times where I wasn’t as kind as I should be.

      The pilot came on a moment later, said that he guessed we weren’t going to wait, and off we went. This is one of those decisions that making some customers happy isn’t the best for overall customer satisfaction. (Reminds me of my time working in a call center when if we had a long hold, some customers would complain about the long hold and really want to spend lots of time complaining about the long hold, and didn’t want to be redirected into actually addressing their problem. They didn’t get that they were making the hold worse for the people who called in after them.)

      Having a system like ConnectionSaver or just someone who isn’t the pilot making the decision on holding a flight, means the pilot gets little to no pressure, they can pass it off on dispatch or someone else which the passengers will never meet.

  12. I wonder what delay codes they are keeping because the quote from Mr. Kirby says “most delay codes”. My guess is it’s the DOT reportable ones.

    I like the Inside Baseball posts. As a passenger, it helps me understand what’s going on.

  13. The use of those delay codes probably also leads to an example of Goodhart’s Law in practice (any observed reality will tend to change/collapse when employees/management game the system to meet the metrics that were set to measure that reality). So whatever we try to measure, employees/management will always try to adjust the data to get the best metrics possible even though that may not reflect reality, thereby making the metric worthless in the first place! I don’t work in the airline industry but I imagine that the airlines are like any other organization that succumbs to this issue.

  14. I’m a United employee, and this will be a great change for us. I started out at the airport and I remember the petty arguments over 1 or 2 minute delays. For the past few years I’ve worked in role where no one is chasing us down over delays, and I’ve personally put many arguments to rest by agreeing to “take the delay” to do what’s right by the customers. The fear of getting hit with a minor delay was actually a big distraction to a lot of people and counterproductive to running a good airline.

    Management will still be able to do post-operational analysis to determine when and why delays are happening, and can address the situation on the back-end. If there is a chronic issue we can solve it without letting it drag morale down in the middle of the operation. Management talks a lot about “empowering” employees, and I think removing the micro-management aspect of delay coding will be a big step in that progress.

  15. I work in pilot scheduling at UA so my position isn’t necessarily affected by this- we still need to have pilots in place and on time so I have a feeling delay codes reflecting us will stick.
    But it may surprise some readers to learn that sometimes a flight has multiple delay codes. A 35 minute delay could be broken as 25 minutes for a late inbound aircraft, another 7 minutes for crew connection, and 3 minutes for fueling not being done. And each department charged will have to write up their delay.

  16. Many good and interesting comments here, but having spent a couple of lifetimes in this arena, I’m not quite as optimistic.

    What I see here is a significant step forward in determining what causes delays – so bear with me, while I describe how I see this working.

    First of all see so many teams involved in each departure. Each team comprises 2 (or more) pilots, so many cabin crew, a couple of gate agents, perhaps a fueler or two, aircraft mechanic, catering, etc. Each team handles one departure. Then the team changes for the next departure.

    When a team incurs a delay, they can simply ‘forget about it’ since they are now in a ‘no-fault’ environment and move on.

    But, I’d suggest that someone is actually analyzing these delays in microscopic detail!

    At the end of the month someone will look at all the delays at a specific airport, and wonder why one specific gate agent, or one specific flight attendant, one one specific pilot has more delays than anyone else? Or, perhaps it’s one particular aircraft that has more delays than average for the fleet?

    The ability to ‘mine the data’ has now reached the stage that these analyses can be conducted with far more valuable results, and I believe the UA team wants to realize the benefits.

    I could be wrong, but I will be interested to see where this goes!

    Thanks Brett!

  17. Having worked in a transportation company where accountability was the exception rather than the rule, all of our line people ran around with Pinocchio noses. The codes were fudged more often that not. The ubiquitous 999999 was the biggest obstacle to our operation’s success.

    Coding is only good when everyone buys in and when accountability means something substantive. Even then, one wonders if the codes are fudged “up” rather than down.

  18. Having worked in a transportation company where accountability was the exception rather than the rule, all of our line people ran around with Pinocchio noses. The codes were fudged more often that not. The ubiquitous 999999 was the biggest obstacle to our operation’s success.

    Coding is only good when everyone buys in and when accountability means something substantive. Even then, one wonders if the codes are fudged “up” rather than down.

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