United Airlines is currently limiting employee standby travel. Employees were told this was done to encourage social distancing onboard. The reality? Yes, but the limits are not about customer safety, only about customer comfort.
A recent town hall meeting for United employees featured a Q&A session with CEO Scott Kirby, President Brett Hart, and EVP Kate Gebo. The topic of employee standby limits was addressed.
Asking about the standby restrictions, a flight attendant asked:
“I want to know how we justify restricting non-revenue travel in the name of safety while allowing those same middle seats to be sold, upgraded, and used for positive space travel? Either the middle seat is safe or it’s not.”
It’s a very good question. So good, in fact, that Kirby punted to Gebo, the Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Labor Relations. Kirby began by explaining his position that safety onboard airplanes is not about social distancing:
“Safety on board airplanes is not about distancing. What makes things safe on an airplane is wearing a mask and not having the germs and the virus projected out. We filter the air through HEPA grade air filters, which is what hospitals use, every two to three minutes. That as well as our intense cleaning procedures is what makes an airplane safe, which is why we haven’t put a policy in place to block middle seats across the board. So then why did we temporarily block those seats for non-rev? Kate will expand on that.”
Nothing like passing the buck, though Gebo was ready with an answer. Note, though, that his very first sentence is at least facially contradictory to the reason given to employees for limiting standby travel.
Why Limit Employee Standby? Because United Customers Do Not Like To Feel Crowded
“One of the great benefits of working for the airline is being able to non-rev and being able to get on. Since May 19, when the policy was put in place, over 85% of the non-revs have been able to get on. That is actually a significant improvement from this time last year when it was only 53%. So the vast majority of our non-revs are getting on. Only two percent of our flights actually are restricted by the 70% threshold that we have.
And you may ask, why put a policy in place for only 2% of the flights? Because that two percent, when that happened, is a meaningful impact to our customers. At a time when we’re trying hard to bring them back to flying with us, that’s a trade-off we’re making right now. But this policy is in place only through June 30, as of right now. I think as the traveling public gets more confident with some of the precautions that are in place, it will absolutely be a policy that will be under review.”
Ok, it’s clear. It’s not about safety at all. Instead, customers just like the extra space right now. United sees leaving as many open seats as possible as key to winning as many customers back as possible.
That’s logical, of course, but isn’t that always the case? Who wants a premium cabin full of non-revs or standbys taking up the precious few seats remaining on full flights? This has nothing to do with safety or COVID-19. The problem, of course, is that non-revenue, space available travel is a selling point of the job. For many, flight benefits are not just a fringe benefit, but the fringe benefit that makes working in the volatile airline industry worthwhile.
I chuckle at Gebo’s last sentence. Such politician talk…But with flights much fuller than even a week ago, I would not be surprised to see increasingly fewer standby opportunities for employees. When that occurs, expect more grievances from employees and the unions representing them.
If you are considering signing up for a new credit card please click here and help support LiveAndLetsFly.com.