Airline says it’s improving following winter service issues

April 25, 2019

By Rob Swenson, for SiouxFalls.Business

In 10 years serving on the board of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, chairman Mike Luce said he can’t remember a time that produced as many complaints about flight-related services as this winter.

This week, representatives for United Airlines and its subsidiary, United Ground Express, were asked to explain what went wrong.

United Airlines is one of the biggest carriers serving the airport. Employees of UGE provide customer services ranging from checking in passengers to handling their baggage.

UGE’s performance during the winter concerned members of the Airport Authority Board, who are called commissioners, and airport administrators. They met with airline officials Tuesday in Sioux Falls to discuss service issues.

Ground services for United’s flights in Sioux Falls transitioned last October to UGE, and the company’s understaffed, inexperienced and relatively low-paid workforce struggled getting started and significantly inconvenienced a lot of passengers flying into and out of Sioux Falls, airport officials said.

Passengers frequently directed their frustrations about flight and baggage-handling delays to airport officials rather than airline representatives, which has added to the frustration of the Airport Authority Board.

Dan Lettlier, airport executive director, expressed concern that some passengers who might prefer to fly out of Sioux Falls might choose instead to drive to Omaha’s airport.

Airport officials invited the airline managers to attend their April board meeting and politely but firmly encouraged them to improve their efforts. Airport officials even hinted that they have considering creating the airport’s own ground-services company.

“We’re not hiding behind any of this. It was a very rough start for us when we transitioned in October,” said Dave Miller, an airport operations manager with UGE who participated in the board meeting by phone. “We have started to see some positive improvement.”

More employees have been hired, more training is taking place, and more money is being invested in equipment, Miller said. “We do feel we have a good plan in place,” he said.

Two other managers with the airline attended the meeting in person and participated in the discussion. They were Jason Ashley, senior regional manager for United Airlines in Chicago, and Bill Madeja, regional manager for UGE in Sioux Falls. Madeja reports to Miller.

Bill Madeja, United Ground Express

Madeja and Ashley said they think performance has improved. “The rough startup was the rough startup. I think that’s behind us,” Madeja said.

Letellier said he has noticed that United’s ground services have improved substantially and that he appreciates the company’s efforts. “But we’ve been down this road before,” he added.

UGE currently employs 38 people in Sioux Falls, which is the model number for the station, Madeja said. Miller said UGE pays starting employees about $11 an hour but is evaluating its pay schedule.

Commissioner David Nelson told United’s managers that trying to hire workers at $11 an hour to perform skilled work in stressful conditions “is crazy.” Fellow Commissioner Julie Schaible compared the starting pay to wages that fast-food restaurants pay employees for less-demanding work.

Board members suggested that UGE might have to pay more, especially to supervisory employees, to reduce turnover and improve services for the longer term.

However, Miller said work schedules, not pay levels, appear to be the biggest issue among employees.

Flights might depart early in the morning or arrive late at night, and tasks such as deicing planes are done outside in the cold. Service challenges can get particularly intense when flights are canceled because of bad weather or delays bunch up landings or departures, officials said.

United provides multiple daily flights to and from Chicago and Denver. The airline serves about 30 percent of the passengers who use the Sioux Falls airport. Four other airlines also provide scheduled passenger service in Sioux Falls: Delta, Frontier, Allegiant and American.

Commissioner Lon Stroschein asked the United managers to not divert passengers’ complaints about their service to the Airport Authority. He also asked if United would be willing to share its service goals with the authority. Miller said the airline would be willing to do so.

Luce said after the meeting that communication is good and he hopes the discussion encourages United to provide better service for travelers in Sioux Falls. Letellier agreed with that objective.

“We just hope that when the weather turns for the worse, they’re better prepared,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Despite some weather-challenged flight days, the Sioux Falls Regional Airport enjoyed its second-busiest month ever for passenger boardings in March. Airport records indicate that 51,190 passengers boarded flights locally in March. The all-time record came in July 2017, with 51,679 boardings.

March and July typically are the airport’s busiest travel months.

Letellier also said that March might have been the busiest boarding month ever at the airport if blizzard conditions hadn’t disrupted passengers’ travel for two or three days.

Boarding numbers for the first three months of the year have been encouraging, he said.

Boardings for March were up almost 3,500 passengers from the March 2018 total of 47,708. Boardings also were up year-over-year in January and February.

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Airline says it’s improving following winter service issues

“We’re not hiding behind any of this.” United Airlines and its ground crew faced the Sioux Falls Regional Airport board this week to explain a winter filled with passenger complaints.

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