United's Alex Marren is focused on providing customers the inflight experience they value and the support our flight attendants need to deliver excellent service
Photography CREATIVE SERVICES, UNITED AIRLINES
EVERY TIME THEY PUT ON THEIR UNIFORMS, flight attendants must be prepared to assume an amazing number of roles: safety expert, emergency responder, professional server, referee, counselor — sometimes all of the above during a single flight.
As anyone who has flown knows, flight attendants set the tone. From the safety announcements before takeoff, to helping customers and their families get settled in their seats, to the flow of meal and beverage service, they are the face of the airline.
It’s a tough job, with high expectations from the customer, the airline and themselves. And Alex Marren, United’s senior vice president of Onboard Service, is in charge of ensuring all 14,000 of United’s flight attendants have the preparation and support to meet those expectations.
In a sense, Marren has been training for this job her entire career. Over the course of 22 years with United, she’s held a variety of positions in the areas of airport operations, customer service, operations control and flight dispatch. Marren even served as a flight attendant herself right after college.
“Our flight attendants are safety and service professionals with a wealth of experience and training. They handle literally hundreds of challenging situations every day,” Marren says. “The job takes great people skills, good judgment and an ability to thrive in a dynamic, fast-paced environment.
“The bottom line is, we are in the service business,” Marren adds, stopping in at a Red Carpet Club in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport before flying to San Francisco to meet with a group of flight attendants. “We always want our customers to feel cared for and respected. For instance, we are redesigning our international product to include upgraded seats, enhanced entertainment and expanded menu options. But we know the most important element of exceptional service is our people.”
The question that preoccupies Marren now is how to ensure employees are set up for success and feel inspired to perform at their best. “The goal of our leadership team,” she says, “is to promote service excellence through communication, training and recognition.”
One example is United’s investment in supporting the company’s 1,800 Qualified Pursers. Many travelers may be unaware of the critical role these peer leaders play; on board all wide-body and international flights, Qualified Pursers coordinate the efforts of the flight attendants, as well as taking special care of premium customers. In a way, the Qualified Purser is the cabin crew’s quarterback; it’s his or her job to make sure every element of service goes off without a hitch.
Marren says getting quality time with those she oversees is key to cultivating new ideas. Because her employees are constantly crisscrossing the globe, face-to-face interaction is difficult to arrange. But that, too, is changing.
We’re flying more with our crews so we can see first-hand from our employees’ point of view, as well as our customers’, the issues that need to be resolved,” Marren explains. “And it’s beginning to pay off as we focus on key markets, such as Chicago and San Francisco, where our customers are giving our people high praise, particularly on the international flights. Based on the feedback offered by thousands of customers, we’re seeing steadily increasing customer satisfaction scores.”
United also provides intensive one-day courses to sharpen the Qualified Pursers’ leadership skills. “We’re really excited about the development training and the interaction we’re having with our folks,” Marren says.
She also oversees the onboard meal strategy and global catering operations, and leads the airline’s efforts to deliver the best possible dining experiences.
“We have a wealth of data now that we didn’t have even two years ago,” Marren says. “Every day we see exactly how our customers feel about the products and the services we provide, and we’re responding.”
For instance, on flights between San Francisco and Denver, and Chicago and Washington Dulles, the airline has added Choice MenuSM — a program launched in May and that will be gradually rolled out more broadly. The menu’s test items include a breakfast Gourmet Deli Plate, sandwiches such as a Turkey Club with Aioli Mayo spread, and more bountiful salads.
New snacks include Odwalla Banana Nut Granola Bars and Vitamin Water Revive.
“We’re in the process of refreshing our buy-on-board concept,” Marren explains. “We’re evaluating the feedback, looking at ways to give customers what they truly value. Whether it’s a fresh salad or a deluxe sandwich, we want to cater to our customers’ preferences and tailor our offerings to options and value as good as what’s available in the airport — with the added convenience of purchasing items onboard,” she adds.
Marren practically glows with pride when she speaks about United’s flight attendants. “Our people love what they do, and they are focused on being attentive to our customers’ needs. With that attitude — and all the necessary tools — we are making the customer’s experience that much better.”
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