What makes the 27th delivery of a Boeing 787 to an airline special? Its employees.
Recently, United took delivery of a 787-9 Dreamliner and invited 200 employees along, to celebrate their dedication and hard work. Team leaders, around the world, were asked to select top performers and they were invited to fly to Seattle, attend a VIP dinner, and take a Dreamliner delivery flight back to home-base in Chicago.
The road to… well… unite United has not been easy and there is still a lot of work ahead. With new leadership, there is renewed hope for bringing everyone together for the purpose of making the airline stronger. From what I saw during the delivery flight, the airline seems to be on the right path. I have become optimistic about their future.
When I woke up at 4:00 am, I had to remember why my alarm was set so early. Oh right… airplane! It was easy to pop out of bed and I was at the Seattle Delivery Center, located at Boeing Field (KBFI) by 6:30 am. For those of you who follow where planes are built, you will know that the 787 was built up north at Paine Field, and typically they are delivered from there. But this 787-9 was first flown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to have some modifications done (standard procedure for United) and then flown to Boeing Field for the delivery. Typically the facility only delivers 737s to customers, and this was the first Dreamliner to be delivered from the location.
Buses soon arrived, carrying the 200 United employees. After dropping off their luggage, they were guided outside on the ramp to see their new plane. Quickly, people started pulling out their phones and cameras to take photos of the Dreamliner. I was surprised at the level of excitement — many people seemed more excited than me to be there (and that is saying something).
As it started to rain, I made my way under one the massive wings for cover and just watched as the employees enjoyed their new 787-9 Dreamliner.
As the taking of selfies started to slow down, the official ribbon cutting ceremony began. Fight attendants, the pilots, executives, and a few United employees (who won a raffle the night before) did the honors of cutting the ribbon. As the cheers rang out, the rain began to fall harder. Everyone made their way back inside for some breakfast, hosted by Boeing.
I stayed out with the plane as long as I could, watching all the smiles of people making their way back inside. I started to realize that this experience wasn’t about this plane’s delivery — it was really about the employees who are working hard for an airline that they care about. They were proud of this plane and they were proud of their company — something I don’t always see when flying United.
I have not always been a fan flying United. Almost every time I do, I have a bad experience. Yes, there are some amazing, wonderful people that work for the airline. I, unfortunately, have mostly interacted with grumpy people who seem to dislike their customers and probably should have left the business years ago.
When speaking to my friends, family, and even strangers (who are not AvGeeks or frequent fliers) they all seem to have a dislike for United. Given that hating airlines, as a whole, is the “popular” thing to do, hating United seems to be the “super popular” thing to do.
Even though I have had my issues with United, I have always been rooting for them. Over the years, I keep thinking, “maybe this is it… maybe this is where they will turn it all around.” Yet, I seem to keep being disappointed time after time. But I think that this might be an opportunity to make that transition. Rebuild the trust with your employees, which in turn will rebuild the trust with your customers. Easy enough on paper, but very hard to do in reality.
With the entrance of their new CEO, Oscar Munoz, I feel there is a legitimate chance for change. Unfortunately he ran into some serious health issues, but he is now back in action. From what I have seen and read about Munoz, I am impressed. Setting a positive tone up top and meeting with employees to hear their concerns and boost moral is a great start.
To help to promote employees sharing their positive experiences with the airline, United has started a special Twitter handle and a culture of pride. “@WeAreUnited was launched in early March as the official social media platform for our employees from around the world to share, in real-time, all the things that they think makes United a great place to work,” Jonathan Guerin, United spokesman explained to AirlineReporter. “Our employees – whether they are working above or below the wing; in a support center; at the gate, and on the phones – want to share the experiences and the thoughts and ideas they have that contribute to making United the best airline. We are seeing great engagement from employees and from leaders as they visit stations, attend team meetings, and travel.”
Now, back to the delivery…
Once breakfast was wrapped up, we all started boarding the plane. Just like any other airport, there were TSA agents doing the screening and we had to take off our shoes, belts, etc. There were no assigned seats and I was able to board early enough to snag one of the Economy Plus seats. Of course, sitting up front would have been grand, but the BusinessFirst seats were given out to employees via the raffle the night before. Kind of cool.
With 200 passengers, on a plane that holds 252, there were lots of open middle seats. I was lucky enough to have one next to me. No matter where you ended up sitting, it was going to be a good flight — everyone received business class service. My seat had a pillow and blanket (both were impressive) and we would get drinks and a high-end meal.
Not many people have taken off in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Boeing Field. It was awesome passing a KC-46A, an F/A-18, and one of the first Boeing 787s as we taxied to the runway (I was asked not to take photos of the flight line and respected that request). And talk about a rocket ship. A 787, barely loaded, no cargo — it didn’t take long for us to lift off and start heading east towards Chicago.
Shortly after take off, champagne was served — VIP style. The United executives who were on board (including Jim T. Olson, senior VP of corporate communications; Manny Naeem, VP of technical operations; Steve Morrisey, VP of regulatory and policy affairs; and Jeff Painter, managing director in-flight service strategy and performance), put on flight attendant aprons and served the smiling passengers. Once everyone had a glass, they toasted to the employees who were on the flight and the future of the airline.
Then it was time for the food. The meal choices were surf and surf (shrimp and lobster) or turf and turf (beef and chicken). I decided to go with the land animals and I was not disappointed (although the other meal also looked delicious too).
After the meal service was really when the flight became obviously different than your regularly scheduled flight. People were standing up, chatting, moving around the cabin (all when safe and no turbulence). The atmosphere was fun and I had a great time talking with a number of different people. Many were optimistic, some were more pessimistic, and a few had concerns on the Continental vs United divide that still exists.
Then it was time to prepare for landing and I couldn’t believe it. That was surely the quickest flight ever from Seattle to Chicago.
As we touched down, the employees once again cheered. I gathered my belongings and made my way off the brand new 787. While waiting for people to de-plane, I was chatting with a passenger waiting to board. On the flight, I was wondering when it would be put into service and turns out, it went RIGHT into service after landing. It was cleaned up and turned around for a flight to Houston.
For me, I grabbed lunch, waited around the airport for a few hours, then hopped on (an aged) Boeing 737-900 to Seattle (it only had about a 25% load factor — which I have not seen in years). My flight arrived at 10:00 pm, which got me home around 20 hours after I woke up. Worth it? Absolutely!
Yes, seeing and flying on a brand new plane is great, but this experience was much more than that. I got to see a part of United that I have not seen in a really long time. With the new leadership and a renewed desire to unite the United employees, I truly hope this is the start of something wonderful. I know that might just be blindly optimistic and no question that this sort of transition will not be easy. Everyone, from top management, to the new hire, will need to work together to make a positive transition successful.
I, and many others, believe in you United — please do not let us down!
Note: United provided airfare back to Seattle. All opinions are my own.