United is giving airport and flight crews more flexibility to hold flights for connecting flyers

May 4, 2021

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United Airlines will empower ground crews to help ensure passengers make connections without having to worry about being penalized for missing certain metrics, TPG has learned.

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In a video to airline staff, a transcript of which was viewed by TPG and confirmed by the airline, CEO Scott Kirby said that the airline will do away with “delay codes,” a system used by United and other airlines to document the reason for departure delays. The change will occur in the coming months, Kirby said.

While the Department of Transportation requires a degree of reporting from airlines relating to broad causes of delays, airlines are largely allowed to implement their own data and reporting systems at whatever level of granularity they choose, although a list of standardized codes is offered by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The issue with delay coding is that it effectively assigns blame to a specific team of crewmember, and must be done even if there’s a one-minute delay at any point during the departure, even when the flight’s arrival is not delayed.

That means that ground crews and flight crews are incentivized to hit every performance metric — particularly “D:00,” which requires flights to push back from the gate by the scheduled departure time — even if a brief delay in departure will not affect the overall arrival time, or if that short delay is justified to wait for connecting passengers from a late inbound flight.

The use of those delay codes can also lead to a culture of finger-pointing and jockeying to assign — or avoid — blame.

The move away from the coding metric is designed to begin shifting away from that culture, Kirby said.

“It’s about working together as a team without worrying about who is going to get blamed if there’s a delay,” Kirby said in the memo. “Most of the time, the best answer for customers is still going to be getting the airplane off the gate to meet D:00. But, as all of you know, there are times when waiting for connecting customers is the best answer.”

Related: United to Hold More Flights for Connecting Passengers

“By getting rid of delay codes, we want to give you the latitude to do the right thing based on the situation,” he added.

The move appears to build upon United’s “ConnectionSaver” tool, which allows gate agents to hold flights at the gate if it means saving the connections of several inbound passengers. In September 2019, about three months after introducing ConnectionSaver, the airline said it had saved 40,000 connections which otherwise would have been missed.

On an earnings call last month, United chief operating officer Jon Roitman hinted at the coming change.

“These metrics are important, but driving towards them can sometimes create suboptimal outcomes for customers,” he said. “For example, obsessing about D0 in many instances leaves connecting customers behind.”

“At United, we’re committed to updating our infrastructure and changing our mindset to become more customer-centric,” he added on that call. “We’re using data and automation, centered on new customer insights, to make it simple for our employees to make the very best decisions for our customers.”

Are you an employee at United or another airline? Message this reporter with tips, feedback, or opinions at david.slotnick@thepointsguy.com.

Featured photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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