Chris Barnett on Business Travel
The Friendly Skies May Be Returning to United
October 13, 2016 -- It took a former railroad boss recovering from a heart attack to transform United Airlines from an indifferent, unhappy carrier to one that may finally live up to its famous slogan: "Fly the friendly skies."

That is, assuming you can call a problem-free roundtrip a corporate makeover.

But four coach legs on a recent journey between San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, qualifies as a snapshot of a new attitude at United. I hadn't seen, felt or experienced anything like it on United in a long time. And based on conversations with fellow passengers, flight attendants and the airline's ground agents at four airports, I feel confident paraphrasing Avis' catchy ad headline from the 1970s: United is definitely "trying harder."

While fares are computer calculated based on historical demand, revenue predictions and other factors, United's current offerings seem like a bargain. The SFO to Madison one-stop in coach last month was just $317 roundtrip. I even scored aisle seats on all four legs. Maybe I was lucky, but usually the fare is $200 to $300 higher on the route. Meantime, a United telephone agent handled my other requests patiently. In past encounters, United's reservationists have frequently sounded annoyed or overworked when I questioned them.

The real surprise came when I discovered the leather-covered coach seat in the showroom-fresh Boeing 737-900 on the SFO to Denver leg. says United's -900 series 737s have as little as 30 inches of legroom in coach. But my seat, one of those new slimline chairs, seemed roomier. I could stretch out and the tray table did not clash with my, ah, stomach. The plane also had power ports throughout the cabin.

On board, five flight attendants handled my annoying, go-the-extra-mile requests without a frown or a frustrated look. One was especially comforting. She made sure the coffee trolley didn't bump my shoulder and asked if I wanted milk or cream in my coffee. She'd joined the airline just three weeks earlier as part of an estimated crew of 2,000 new flight attendants based at United's San Francisco hub.

"Before," the newbie explained, "I was a stay-at-home-mom and raised four kids," she said with a smile.

Also on the crew: a 16-year United veteran who did not want to be identified, but had plenty to say about the prevailing winds from the C-suite at Chicago headquarters.

"It's a lot different up here these days," she explained, crediting Oscar Munoz, formerly president of the CSX railroad. He replaced Jeff Smisek last year, promptly suffered a heart attack and underwent a heart transplant. Munoz "is actually talking to us. He's working with--and for--employees as much as for customers."

United cabin and ground attendants insisted Munoz is a refreshing change from Smisek, who had a documented reputation as a cold, distant and detached boss.

"Smisek was ineffective as a CEO," the veteran flight attendant continued. "He told us we were lazy, that we didn't want to work. He was very good in showing us where the door to the building was. And if you didn't like it, leave."

Still another flight attendant chimed in. United employees "are very hopeful. We're very encouraged with Oscar and his team. The real test will be whether the middle managers will get on board with Munoz's leadership. That will tell you if United's really going to be customer friendly again."

Random conversation with fellow passengers netted similarly positive feedback on new-look and new-feel United. A Silicon Valley banker on my flight also noticed a difference in United's in-flight service and operational efficiency in recent months. "I see better on-time performance," he said. "Better attitude among flight attendants. They're more engaging with passengers. For a long time, many were unhappy and even surly."

Jeanne O'Brien, a regional manager for Weight Watchers who divides her loyalty between Southwest and United, took time away from working on her laptop to compliment the attitude of United's cabin crews. "United's flight attendants are a lot friendlier today," she said. Jim Cornfield, a commercial photographer, noted that "flight attendants seem more content, more attentive to serving the customer."

The staff and passenger responses are enormously encouraging given the fact that United essentially remains two airlines today, more than six years after the merger with Continental was announced.

One example: Three of the four legs I flew were operated by pre-merger United flight crews, the fourth by a former Continental crew. Until a new flight attendant contract is fully implemented--Munoz cut a deal earlier this year and flight attendants ratified it during the summer--pre-merger United and former Continental employees will continue to operate separate flights. It could take more than a year for the two groups to be completely integrated.

Thankfully, however, every cabin crew member I spoke with--United and Continental alike--was happy and optimistic about their future under Munoz's leadership. There was little trace of the bitter rivalry that was evident to anyone who flew the airline during Smisek's ill-fated rein.

"Smisek would walk by and never say a word to anyone," one of the agents recalled. "Completely ignored us."

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.