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United Airlines Has Happy Shareholders, Unhappy Workers


One month ago, United Airlines became the embodiment of poor customer service after a passenger was literally dragged off a plane. You remember that video. Now, the airline's stock price is near a record high. And shareholders at the annual meeting in Chicago yesterday seemed mostly pleased, although that doesn't mean everyone is happy with United. Here's NPR's David Schaper.






DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's not the airline's passengers who are fed up with United. These are employees - baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants and others picketing across the street from the massive Willis Tower, downtown Chicago, where United is headquartered. These low-wage workers are not employed by United but by companies contracted with the airline. Raquel Brito says she and the others are not sharing in United's recent surge in profits.

RAQUEL BRITO: We just need a living wage so we can pay our bills and put food on the table for our family.

SCHAPER: A few of the workers pleaded their case at the shareholders' meeting, imploring executives to pressure the contractors into paying more.


OSCAR MUNOZ: I think I need to get the facts.

SCHAPER: CEO Oscar Munoz says those are not his companies and he cannot compel them, but he did promise to look into the matter. Munoz also addressed the dragging of Kentucky doctor David Dao off a plane last month, and he renewed his promise to, as he put it, redouble our efforts to be more customer-focused in everything we do. Though the global uproar over the incident has quieted somewhat, Munoz says the airline cannot simply now move on.


MUNOZ: I don't ever want that issue to be gone and behind us. It always has to be a constant reminder of what we can and do better on.

SCHAPER: But United's shareholders themselves did not seem too concerned about the dragging incident. No one spoke out about it nor about any other recent customer service fiasco.

FRAN SLEZER: I think they're doing pretty good in spite of things that have happened.

SCHAPER: Stockholder Fran Slezer is a retired United employee who worked more than five decades for the airline. And after many turbulent years, she says things now seem steady.

SLEZER: I think they're doing fine. I think Oscar is great for our airline.

SCHAPER: At least some of that optimism comes from a stock price that is up more than 70 percent from a year ago and up more than 10 percent just since the dragging incident.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: United clearly has set a new course since the incident.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman is an airline industry expert at Chicago's DePaul University who says in addition to improving customer service in recent weeks, United had already been improving in ways important to investors. So even if the airline's image is damaged for a while...

SCHWIETERMAN: Wall Street, though, I think sees that, you know, the revenue picture is really quite detached from some of those problems. And that's probably why the stock is soaring.

SCHAPER: That said, Schwieterman says United cannot afford much more damage to its reputation if it's going to continue flying in the right direction. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this report, Raquel Brito was described as a food service worker. In fact, Brito is a baggage handler.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 25, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this report, Raquel Brito was described as a food service worker. In fact, Brito is a baggage handler.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.