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Leaked memo reveals United Airlines no tolerance policy

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LA Post: Leaked memo reveals United Airlines no tolerance policy
February 02, 2024
Natasha Dixon - LA Post

A leaked internal United Airlines memo reveals the airline plans to crack down on flight attendants using personal electronic devices while on duty, threatening disciplinary action "up to and including termination." The harsh policy aims to improve inflight safety and customer service quality but seems overly strict given the ubiquity of smartphones in modern life.

The memo, shared anonymously by flight attendants, mandates no personal device usage "while customers are on board the aircraft, with the exception of crew rest" (Live and Let's Fly). United argues attendants cannot "provide visible and attentive service to customers" if distracted by phones and that device use causes safety issues like "missing an onboard security incident" or "causing personal injury" by poor bracing during landing (leaked memo).
Yet, in our tech-dependent world, people check phones constantly, even in inappropriate places.

Banning device use completely seems extreme and out of touch. As Matthew Klint of Live and Let's Fly notes, the severe penalties suggest "the seriousness of this problem" for United. Though improving safety is admirable, such rigid policies often backfire through lower morale.
While poor service and distracted employees are undesirable, reasonable policies acknowledging our device reliance may work better. For example, attendants could use phones only during slow periods, never during takeoff/landing, etc. Such compromise seems wise, especially given attendants’ confinement for long flights.

Though passengers cannot use devices during critical phases like takeoff, we aren’t banned completely. Attendants deserve manageable rules, too. This struggle around device policies reflects larger airline customer service issues – the friendly skies aren’t so friendly nowadays, especially on legacy carriers like United.

Endless fees, cramped cabins, and other indignities make passengers grumpy. Attendants face the brunt of this, needing patience and empathy, which device distraction may erode. Still these frontline workers deserve humane treatment. Draconian rules likely lower morale when encouragement may inspire better service. Carriers must acknowledge attendants’ essential roles with appropriate culture and policies.

That said, United isn’t alone in eyeing phone use crackdowns. Both American and Delta limit attendant device use to maintain safety standards. European budget carriers like RyanAir even suggest firing staff for chewing gum or tying back long hair (Los Angeles Times).

So, while United lags behind peers in service quality, its device policy echoes an industry prizing efficiency over worker satisfaction. The risk is that good talent leaves while disgruntled employees with few options stay – not ingredients for stellar service. Happy attendants make for happy passengers.

Aviation analysts say United hopes boosting attendant attentiveness can improve its customer service scores – key metrics where the airline struggles. Per J.D. Power data, legacy rivals like Delta and America dominate United in satisfaction. The carrier even trails discount operators JetBlue and Southwest, which excel in service despite cheaper fares.

So, while this electronics ban aims to address legitimate issues, the unintended side effects may actually impede progress. If United wants to compete on service, a culture shift valuing frontline staff is essential. Attendants must feel engaged and empowered, not policed and punished.
Device distraction surely challenges airline operations today as everywhere else. Reasonable precautions are prudent. But heavy-handed policies risk disenfranchising valuable employees already facing daunting roles for modest pay.

Cultivating loyalty and team spirit is a shrewder strategy than dictating arbitrary, outsized prohibitions. Rather than fixate on phones, United might examine root causes of sagging services, like strained staffing and pressures for cost-cutting. Symptom cures won’t help without addressing the underlying disease.

In truth, all airlines wrestle to balance productivity, safety, costs, and labor relations. Forced to do more with less, Lean models leave little fat, though added fees fatten profits. Overreactions like United’s electronics rule reflect these tensions. Tighter operations require uniform coordination with less flexibility for individual needs on long, repetitive flights.

But attendants rightfully expect some personal liberties even on the job. Phone policies must acknowledge this. Absolute bans are sure to fail and only foster resentment while eroding trust.
United would be wise to rethink this approach. Offer carrots rather than sticks to boost professional conduct. And demonstrate trust in valued attendants who literally hold passengers’ lives in their hands every day at 30,000 feet, no small responsibility.

If United hopes this device crackdown improves its service and safety performance, the company may be disappointed. Quick fixes never resolve systemic issues. Real transformation requires hard cultural change and leadership commitment.

Rather than reprimand attendants over phones, United should empower and appreciate them while providing training, tools, and incentives to deliver standout hospitality. Today, every airline competes chiefly on customer experience. United is already behind. Draconian rules that alienate employees won't help it catch up.

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