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Essay: HR Consulting: Identifying the Problem (United Airlines)

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HR Consulting: Identifying the Problem

Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, United Airlines is the third largest airline in the United States with a total fleet of 750 aircraft and more than 86,000 employees operating out of 10 major hubs across the U.S. and overseas (United Airlines, 2017).  Each day, United Airlines works to provide more than 4,500 domestic and international flights to 339 airports around the globe.  United’s dedication to safe and friendly air travel is summarized in their customer commitment statement, “We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry” (United Airlines, 2017).  Ironically, it is the employee dissatisfaction, customer service complaints, and negative consumer reports that have been a long-standing issue for the airline.

Troubled Waters

Marred by events including the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001, four years of financial upheaval from 2002 to 2006, a tumultuous merger with Continental in 2010, the firing of their CEO amidst bribery allegations in 2015, and ongoing customer service complaints stemming from the airlines callous operations both on-ground and in-flight, United’s leadership seems more focused on generating profit than addressing the organization’s internal discord and external consumer relations problems.  A 2012 survey revealed that 43 percent of customer complaints filed against major airlines were filed against United Airlines or subsidiaries (Bennett, 2016).  The complaints, launched by consumers, are based on several factors including: flight delays, mishandled baggage, oversold flights, consumer complaints, customer service reports, and animal loss, injury, or death reports.  After filing a report, consumer data is then collected by various agencies including the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  This data is later compiled into a comprehensive report and released in a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, as well as an annual report with all complaint data collected during the year.  

Although United consistently ranks among the worst airlines in the US, the airline has done little to repair its reputation or resolve its customer service problems.  Per Hiltzic (2017), “In January, United passengers lodged 174 complaints with federal authorities, compared with only 87 against Southwest, even though Southwest on average carries nearly twice as many passengers” (Hiltzic, 2017).  While it may be easier to blame United’s ongoing issues on it workforce, identifying the core of the problems begins with a thoroughly analysis of the organization in its entirety.  

From the Top, Down

United Airlines current corporate leaders include: President, Scott Kirby, Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Labor Relations, Michael Bonds, and Chief Operations Officer (COO), Gregory Hart (United Airlines, 2017).  In 2015, former Board of Director’s member and businessman Oscar Munoz was named President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) following the resignation of Jeff Smisek and two top lieutenants amid allegations of bribery and a subsequent federal investigation into the airline’s dealings with the former chairman of the Port Authority in New York and New Jersey (New United CEO, 2015).  Just five years into the United-Continental merger, Munoz found himself in the center of the storm; taking the reins of a toxic organization suffering from a culture of cost-savings by any means necessary—including at the expense of its employees and customer base.  While United has strived to continue maximizing its profit return amid tough competition, corporate leaders have failed to revamp the programs policies, and procedures that have contributed to the airline’s reputation as one of the worst in America (Bennett, 2016).

The Way Ahead

According to Tim Wu, former United shareholder and writer for The New Yorker, “The United merger is a grand example of a consumer sinkhole—a merger that proves to be not just a onetime event but an ongoing disaster for consumers (and shareholders) who suffer for years after” (Wu, 2014).   By design, the merger was intended to streamline airline operations for United and Continental, saving costs, and maximizing profits.  While recovering from years of financial turmoil that catapulted the company into bankruptcy, the merger between United and Continental was viewed as a means of recovery for both the airline and its investors.  From a business standpoint, this strategy was successful in yielding over $10 billion in profit in the past two years (Wu, 2017).  Unfortunately, the merger has done little to address ongoing organizational issues.

In April 2017, passenger David Dao was injured after being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  The entire incident, captured on cellphone video, highlighted United’s customer service issues and prompted the organization to examine its current human resources functions and policies.  According to the Associated Press (2017), the federal government will not take legal action against the airline however, United and other airlines are facing mounting pressure from Congress to not only address customer concerns, but to immediately implement actions to change the course of the airline industry.  


From an HR Consulting standpoint, the obvious problem, is not the core problem.  In looking back at the inception of the United-Continental merger, many of United’s current issues were evident then.  United leadership failed to fully explain the possible impact of the merger to stakeholders including managers, supervisors, and employees.  Leadership’s direction and vision were not clearly communicated and employees were not given the opportunity to address their concerns and apprehensions with key leaders.  Clearly communicating the organization’s goals, objectives, and vision helps to minimize barriers to change and ease the process of incorporating the vision in all aspects of United’s operations.  By identifying the problem, the next step would be determining the organizational needs.  Ultimately, the goal is to develop and implement business strategies and human resources strategies that achieve outlined goals and objectives.

and working towards creating short-term goals aimed at carefully achieving a


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