United Airlines Just Made a Tiny Change. And The Results Are Truly Fascinating
United Airlines revealed a tiny little change last week. It’s such a small shift that most United Airlines passengers will probably never notice it.
So why are we talking about it? Because the mere fact that it’s a small change doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. In fact, if you’re running a business of any size, in any industry, I’d pay close attention to what United Airlines just did.
If you can do so with an open mind, the thought process behind United’s little change could spark some smart ideas to improve your own operations.
Let’s examine United’s decision, and then break down the prompts it holds other business leaders. It won’t take but a few seconds, really.
In short: no more cocktail picks on United Airlines.
I admit, I had to think through what these even were, when I first read the report. Basically,
if you fly on United Airlines during 2021, and you order a drink with a wedge of lemon or lime, there will be a small change.
Your United Airlines flight attendant will serve the drink with the wedge — but without one of those little plastic or wooden spears stuck through the middle of it.
I can’t tell you what United Airlines spends on cocktail sticks, but a quick search of Amazon tells me you can buy a pack of 200 or for about $8.
And, according to an internal memo obtained by the airline site, Live and Let Fly, United Airlines says it expects to save $80,000 per year as a result of this change.
Now, I have zero stake in the outcome of United Airlines particularly. I don’t like or loathe cocktail sticks. Frankly, I don’t even fly all that much, given the pandemic.
But this kind of weird business decision is Exhibit A for why I think people who run other businesses should pay attention to the operations of the airline industry.
Most industry decisions are explained in detail, given that all the big players are publicly traded. And, their employees sometimes share internal information on decision-making as if it were a sport.
It’s like an ongoing series of free business leadership lessons — what to do, and what not to do — all performed in public, by the players in an enormous, heavily covered, easily understood, highly challenged, commodity based industry.
Who could ask for more? So, let’s think through the cocktail sticks.
First, we should note that the airlines — and heck, United Airlines in particular, even under previous leadership — has a history of finding really creative ways to cut corners and save money.
For example, United Airlines once reduced the card stock in its in-flight magazines, which meant saving money on fuel, since it meant lifting four fewer tons of cargo into the sky every day.
Separately, it trumpeted the fact that it was no longer carrying duty-free bottles onboard international flights (almost nobody was buying them anyway), and stopped including seat back video screens.
Less weight, lower fuel costs. Besides, almost every passenger on the planet now carries his or her own video screen everywhere they go.
Most legendarily, United Airlines once reduced by one the number of olives it included on first class salads, in order to save $40,000 a year.
Granted, you could look at this cocktail stick decision and remark, quite legitimately, that saving $80,000 during a year when your airline is losing millions of dollars a day during a pandemic isn’t significant.
But there are also two other ways to look at it.
The first is a kind of “$80,000 here, $80,000 there; next thing you know, you’re talking about real money” attitude.
You tell me: What would it be worth in your business to create a culture in which employees came up with creative ways to save money that won’t affect your customers?
Could it add up over time?
The second point is symbolic — because sometimes symbols are as important as the actual result.
And that could be especially important if your business is facing challenging times as a result of the pandemic, and employees want reassurance that their jobs will still be around.
I can’t tell you if this applies to your business, of course. Maybe things are going great in your industry, or else perhaps you’ve already cut clear to the bone.
But if that’s not the case, maybe the next time you see an airplane in the sky, ask yourself:
What are the cocktail sticks in your business? And is there a way to get rid of them quickly, save money, and do it without anyone even being affected?