United’s Denny Flanagan: “Being nice is contagious”

flanaganUnited Airlines Captain Denny Flanagan had his 15 minutes of fame — and then some — when he was “discovered” by several prominent print and broadcast outlets two years ago and profiled for his many random acts of kindness. But long after the TV crews left, Captain Flanagan continues to do good at United. I caught up with him recently.

You became famous in 2007 when you were profiled by by a newspaper and later made appearances on the morning talk shows. The interviews portrayed you as a captain who cared, and United’s chief executive called you an ambassador for the company. Did anything change for you after that?

After the media attention, I received numerous emails from customers and fellow employees thanking me for providing a positive travel experience for customers of United Airlines. Also rewarding was receiving emails from my peers at United and other airlines thanking me for promoting the profession. The biggest change is the customer now shakes my hand and thanks me for giving them a good travel experience, which is not necessary but is sure appreciated.

Everyone deserves a good travel experience whether they travel on United or by train, bus or car. When you accept one of these modes of travel you deserve a safe and comfortable ride. I brought a bright spot to an industry that is often times shown in a negative light. Most travelers could relate to this and enjoyed the story.

When we met in 2006 in Chicago, one of the things I meant to ask you was, “Why don’t all crewmembers do this?” Do you have any thoughts on why your compassion has been singled out like this?

There are a lot of pilots who every day engage our customers and we have files of letters received from them. The pilots number one job is to safely get you to your destination and if there is enough time to step out of our environment to engage the customer, many pilots will do so. For example back in 2003, 622 pilots gave their credit cards to the flight attendants, who would then swipe the card on the airphone to let unaccompanied minors call home from the flight and let their mom know that they are OK.

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There is a group of pilots who belong to the Pilot Customer/Employee Engagement Team that the pilots put together to share ideas on how to engage the customer and employee. Capt. John McFadden works much like myself, from the heart, as does Capt. Dennis Henderson, who makes boarding announcements in the gate area before the flight. First Officer Pam Rae takes carry-on pets for a walk around the aircraft . Capt. Tim Kallet and Capt. Mike Mair give out history books of United Airlines to customers and thank them for their business. There is a lot of engagement from the pilots with the 100,000-plus customers we fly every day.

I’m assuming this isn’t part of your pilot training. What made you start committing random acts of kindness?

Being kind is human nature and you know it is just the right thing to do. There are numerous instances in our lives which develop the way we act toward each other. One such moment happened years ago which changed how I ran my day.

Tell me about it, please.

I had the honor and privilege of spending some quality one-on-one time with Astronaut Jim Lovell. Tom Hanks played him in Apollo 13. During our conversation I asked Jim what was his most memorable flight.

Without skipping a beat he told me the last thing he will see before he closes his eyes is the view of our planet he witnessed from Apollo 8 in 1968. At that time Jim made a fist, half stretched out his arm with his thumb sticking straight up simulating his famous pose of blocking out Mother Earth from his seat 225,000 miles away.

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Jim told me that he is one astronaut in this capsule but I represent 6 billion astronauts on that ball (Earth) and you are ruining it. He continued to speak which sounded like a lecture blaming me for all the pollution, greed, anger, disease, poverty etc. At the same time the hair on my arm is sticking straight up between rows upon rows of goose bumps. It was a powerful moment for me and one that will last forever.

Jim left me with the parting thought that if our world leaders could just view our planet from his seat in Apollo 8, they would change the way they are running things. This is the only place we have to live, it is so fragile and needs tender care.

At a time like this, when many airlines are struggling to survive, is it possible for one person to make a difference?

I believe that one person can make a difference and that changes into two, and then three, [and more]. Being nice is contagious and I feel strongly that there is a deep desire in everyone’s heart to have a good life. Recall the movie Pay It Forward. That one movie brought out the goodness in people and everyone was doing acts of kindness. The people who are out there making a difference keep the momentum going.

Each individual at United can make a difference and you see it done every day. For example, the employees who directly interact with the customer are in their own mind United Airlines. Their actions make the difference if the customer returns for another flight. The recipe has three easy steps. Come to work with a positive attitude, anticipate your customer’s needs and exceed their expectations.

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I realize it may be difficult for you to answer this, but is there one moment in the past when you’ve been proudest of your actions – when you’ve said to yourself, “I’m glad I went the extra mile to make someone feel special”?

About 10 days before Christmas in 2008, a customer asked if I could help her get an electric wheelchair to a young boy in Honduras. A call to my colleagues in Cargo and to our new partner Continental Airlines got the ball rolling. The chair was delivered at no cost to the family on Christmas Day.

Recently, another pilot has been in the news promoting the first of two books about a brave emergency landing in the Hudson. Not to take anything away from one of your colleagues, but I think someone like you deserves at least one book deal. Do you need a ghostwriter?

Sully is a great representative of the total airline pilot profession and is doing a terrific job. I am anxious to read his book.

Um, alright. If you could change one thing about air travel today, what would it be?

If I could change one thing, it would be that each employee comes to work as if is his or her first day on the job and every customer is treated as if it is their first flight. After all, in the service industry your paycheck comes from the customer. My second change would be to have employee paychecks signed, the customer.

Do you think we’ll ever go back to flying the friendly skies?

Every day I fly the friendly skies it is constantly referenced by employees and by customers in emails I receive from them; it is in their hearts.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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