khj-unfriendly-skies.jpgThis morning I began my “fun” vacation trip to visit my daughter in Denver. She recently moved from Boston to Denver to be ‘among her people’, seeking a professional job in a city that promises outdoor adventure and folks who balance boardrooms and mountain tops in one day with ease.

As my husband pulled the car up to United Airlines curb, I bid my goodbyes and with my bag in hand and was off. It was only 5:30 in the morning but the airport was alive like a mid day rush. I watched as lines were forming, people were rushing to find the end of what seemed like a terminal line to go through security. “How far back does this go, I asked”?

“Just keep going” was the reply back from a bland-faced, blue-outfitted woman.

I kept thinking, “What if this isn’t the right line?” What if I sit in this line that has 500 people and when I get to the front they tell me I’ve been in the wrong line all along. So early in the morning and feeling quite overwhelmed. The line lingered for about 30 or more minutes and we shuffled through the usual routine: shoes off, computers and toiletries out of bag, no sweaters on, as we revolved through the security process. I then had the good fortune to be singled out to have my hand scanned for explosive dust. All the way through the line with a few grunts and glares… without one slightly welcoming human interaction.

And then there was the line for coffee, a story for another day.

Next up, the flight was oversold. The ‘happy’ United crew were practically screaming at us, almost blaming us for their overselling the flight. The audacity of us all showing up for the flight we paid for. If people didn’t step up to take their $500 offer and agree to move to the night time flight they would have to move to a less voluntary step.

And then we were shepherded onto the plane by section 1-5.  Since the airline charges $25 for your first bag, most everyone was trying to bring their carry on bag on the plane but of course only about half of the bags actually fit in the overhead bins. The last groups allowed on the plane, sections four and 5 were being penalized as unhappy attendants were shuffling customer bags one after another to the underbelly of baggage below.

Seats are skinnier, leg room noticeably shorter, no little TV on the seat in front of me on this new plane. An attendant came rushing over an older passenger that unhooked her seatbelt and was about to stand up when the plane was beginning to close up and take off. “Ma’am, I need to tell you legally that you must remain in your seat with your seatbelt on. I can’t legally…” and the poor bewildered, older woman who mistakenly unhooked her seatbelt slumped in her seat and tightened her belt.

The pilot came on and began his silique, a bland tone and drone that he ended by thanking us for flying the “friendly” skies of United.

Friendly? Are you kidding me? I had been in the hands of this brand for close to two hours, from the time I stepped onto their curb with not one “friendly” interaction or anyone making me feel like I was anything other than a number and he’s calling this “friendly”?

This is where your story begins and the lessons can be learned. No matter how big you are or how small your company is, set your values and live by them. Take the time to figure out who you are, what you stand for and how you want to be known out there. And “be” it. Every way and every day.

Make sure what you are saying isn’t rhetoric and who you are is who you are with every face-to-face and non-face-to-face interaction- make it personal. We are all people and by nature, people gravitate to brands that form an honest and authentic connection. Test out how you are doing. Make sure from top down and bottom up, your customers and how you interact with them is being embraced and carried out as part of your employee DNA.

Now, my advice to United Airlines… you may think the folks that fly the economy class are peanuts, but it is my guess that these are the same people you will be furiously trying to bring back to your brand, all smiles and a new “friendly veneer”, when a shiny new brand comes to town that appreciates the common class of people that just want to fly from here to there with dignity and a smile.

Cindy Hale is the Chief Marketing Officer at KHJ. Want to meet and talk about your brand strategy and activation program? Give us a call at 617-241-8000 or send us a note at