United’s Denny Flanagan: “Being nice is contagious”

By | November 18th, 2009

flanaganUnited Airlines Captain Denny Flanagan had his 15 minutes of fame — and then some — when he was “discovered” by several prominent print and broadcast outlets two years ago and profiled for his many random acts of kindness. But long after the TV crews left, Captain Flanagan continues to do good at United. I caught up with him recently.

You became famous in 2007 when you were profiled by by a newspaper and later made appearances on the morning talk shows. The interviews portrayed you as a captain who cared, and United’s chief executive called you an ambassador for the company. Did anything change for you after that?

After the media attention, I received numerous emails from customers and fellow employees thanking me for providing a positive travel experience for customers of United Airlines. Also rewarding was receiving emails from my peers at United and other airlines thanking me for promoting the profession. The biggest change is the customer now shakes my hand and thanks me for giving them a good travel experience, which is not necessary but is sure appreciated.

Everyone deserves a good travel experience whether they travel on United or by train, bus or car. When you accept one of these modes of travel you deserve a safe and comfortable ride. I brought a bright spot to an industry that is often times shown in a negative light. Most travelers could relate to this and enjoyed the story.


When we met in 2006 in Chicago, one of the things I meant to ask you was, “Why don’t all crewmembers do this?” Do you have any thoughts on why your compassion has been singled out like this?

There are a lot of pilots who every day engage our customers and we have files of letters received from them. The pilots number one job is to safely get you to your destination and if there is enough time to step out of our environment to engage the customer, many pilots will do so. For example back in 2003, 622 pilots gave their credit cards to the flight attendants, who would then swipe the card on the airphone to let unaccompanied minors call home from the flight and let their mom know that they are OK.

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There is a group of pilots who belong to the Pilot Customer/Employee Engagement Team that the pilots put together to share ideas on how to engage the customer and employee. Capt. John McFadden works much like myself, from the heart, as does Capt. Dennis Henderson, who makes boarding announcements in the gate area before the flight. First Officer Pam Rae takes carry-on pets for a walk around the aircraft . Capt. Tim Kallet and Capt. Mike Mair give out history books of United Airlines to customers and thank them for their business. There is a lot of engagement from the pilots with the 100,000-plus customers we fly every day.

I’m assuming this isn’t part of your pilot training. What made you start committing random acts of kindness?