United Airlines is training its employees in compassion.
The airline recently rolled out a new program called "core4." Thousands of employees will go through an ambitious four-hour training session that aims to teach workers to be efficient (think on-time departures), ensure operations are safe and do it all with a smile.
Airlines face near-instant backlash from consumers as on-board incidents go viral thanks to ubiquitous smartphones.
United was embroiled in a public relations disaster last year when passenger David Dao was violently dragged off a flight to make room for a commuting crew member. Its handling of the incident, including a botched apology, drew further ire on social media.
As it is trying to improve its image and how employees treat customers, United is also trying to remain as efficient as possible to convince skeptical investors that it can grow its operations and expand profit margins.
Roughly 30,000 customer-facing employees such as flight attendants will be required to take the course. Core4 draws its name from the four characteristics: caring, safe, dependable and efficient.
Should a United employee hold up a plane so an elderly passenger can make a tight connection? How many miles should an inconvenienced passenger receive?
There are no easy answers to questions like these, but employees often have to decide on the spot when situations arise.
United and other airlines such as Delta Air Lines have expanded programs that give their employees more power, such as directly compensating a passenger when things out of the company's control go awry. Delta, for example, gives employees handheld devices to rebook passengers, change seats and make other changes on the spot.
Unlike safety standards, which are more rigid, customer service is a gray area, because it often entails making good judgment calls on the fly, decisions that depend on the passenger in question and myriad other factors.
In the wake of the Dao incident, United employees took computer-based training that quizzed staff on how they would handle certain customer-service problems such as spilling a drink on a passenger, according to an employee.
Core4 goes further. United employees will participate in role-playing exercises in groups to try to solve customer service issues, afterward discussing the rationale for why they handled a scenario in a certain way.
The caring unit includes good listening skills and even body language, according to a company document on the program. Employees should show that they are approachable with "open body language," "smiling," "making eye contact," "speaking with a positive tone" and "being mindful and compassionate."
"Core4 puts a value on emotional intelligence," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United's flight attendants.
United executives have touted some recent performance improvements. Nearly 85 percent of United flights were on time in December, the best score among U.S. carriers, according to Department of Transportation data. For the year, the airline came in fourth, up a spot from 2016.
But the airline's executives have a loftier goal in creating better customer service, which is harder to measure and train for compared with safety and operational procedures.
United scored below Alaska Airlines, American and Delta in the J.D. Power airline satisfaction survey published last May. The Department of Transportation received 2,030 complaints about United last year, down from 2,277 in 2016, according to DOT data.
The core4 program hasn't been without its hiccups. Last week, United's president, Scott Kirby, unveiled a new employee bonus program tied to "core4" metrics. The core4 goals weren't the problem. The issue was that the company planned to ditch its quarterly bonus program and replace it with a lottery system, making it more difficult to be rewarded. The backlash from employees prompted Kirby to put that program on hold until speaking with more employees about it.
The question remains whether the training will have a positive and lasting impact on employee morale, as staff interact with more passengers than ever thanks to more travelers, fuller planes or denser cabin configurations.
Such training sessions "are not new," said Ryan Patrick Murphy, a former United Airlines flight attendant who is now a historian and wrote the book "Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice." He noted that the "vast majority of airline employees are self-managed."
Airlines are trying to give employees tools to solve problems on their own, in an effort to keep travelers calm before incidents go viral, or worse.
While both new and existing employees will receive the training, United and other airlines should screen for qualities such as empathy when they hire, said Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.
Caring or kindness "can be taught but it also has to be recruited for," he said. "I don't think the issue is culture; the issue is strategy."
"It's not about just being the promptest," Deshpande said. "It's also how you're treated on board."