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United Airlines Flight Attendants Just Made a Big Announcement, and Basically Nobody Is Happy

The opposite of love isn't hate. It's apathy.

Most of us know this deeply. It's why the silent treatment hurts so much.

It's why sometimes it actually feels better if someone you care about is angry at you -- even demonstrably, loudly angry -- than if they don't show any concern about you at all.

With that in mind, let's talk about United Airlines. Or perhaps more specifically, United Airlines flight attendants.

Over the last week or so, the union representing United Airlines flight attendants has been rolling out what it says will be a weekly rating showing how their members feel about United Airlines management.

It's all based, somewhat cheekily, on the concept of a Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is a metric used in market research to demonstrate how customers feel about a particular brand.

As Ben Schlappig wrote at One Mile at a Time, "[a]irline management teams are generally obsessed with net promoter scores (NPS) as a metric of customer satisfaction."

I can see why. For one thing, the airlines are a pure commodity industry, all selling basically the same thing: a sliver of real estate within a pressurized metal tube, moving people from point A to point B.

They're at pains to differentiate themselves any way they can. And so, the idea that all of that differentiation can be boiled down into a single quantifiable metric?

Chef's kiss. Magic in numbers. Marketer's dream. It's almost too good to be true.

It's also somewhere between inevitable and hilarious, therefore, that United Airlines flight attendants announced they've come up with their own quantifiable metric, using similar methodology (well, sort of).

As the United Airlines flight attendants' union put in a statement:

United regularly surveys and collects feedback on what areas they can improve upon to provide a better experience through their Net Promoter Score (NPS).

United has made it very clear that this is one of the most important metrics they use and have invested a great deal of time and effort explaining to Flight Attendants all the different ways we can have a positive impact on United's NPS score. ... Being the problem solvers that we are, we thought we'd offer valuable insight on how management can improve this critical internal customer Flight Attendant experience. We are excited to announce our new Flight Attendant Promoter Score (FPS).

Their plan is simple. Well, simple-ish.

Each week, the union says it plans to ask flight attendants to take a survey answering five specific questions about their work environment and management, and then choose a number between 1 and 10, "with zero meaning [flight attendants] are strongly disappointed and 10 meaning [they] are highly satisfied."

Much like with a net promoter score, United flight attendants who offer a 9 or 10 are considered promoters, those who answer 6 or lower are considered detractors, and those saying 7 or 8 are considered neutral.

During the first week, the United Airlines flight attendants union reported that the FPS for United Airlines management was very low: negative 95 percent.

Wow. If this number is accurate and representative, it would seem that basically nobody at United Airlines -- or at least, almost nobody among its flight attendants -- was happy with United Airlines.

Now, as you might have guessed, this all comes up within the context of union negotiations. Also, let's just say there are some methodological questions I'd love to get answered if the union truly does plan to update the score every week.

(At the top of the list: Exactly how many flight attendants actually took the survey?)

But the bigger point is actually a bit more positive, albeit paradoxically.

It's that negative NPS scores, like the negative FPS score, often don't make sense, even if they're mathematically sound. Because, assuming market choices, why would someone remain a customer or remain associated with a brand if they were also a detractor of a brand?

(It's like that old Yogi Berra line, when he was asked about a restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.")

I'm asking the same question here: Yes, I get that United Airlines flight attendants are invested in their jobs because of the lifestyle, and the nature of the work, and the seniority they accrue as time passes with their airline.

But at the same time, if it were really that bad, why would anyone stay?

I asked United Airlines for comment on the concept of an FPS score.

"Our flight attendants are best-in-class and take pride in their career at United," United spokesman Josh Freed said. "In fact, many often refer and recruit others to work at our airline - and we remain open to ways we can continually make their experience even better."

United also told me that a recent referral-only job posting for flight attendants generated 2,700 recommendations in three days.

Look, I want United Airlines to do well, just as I generally want all companies to do well. I also want United Airlines flight attendants to get a good contract they can be happy with.

But I'm not drawn to this story to dissect United Airlines labor negotiations.

Instead, as I write in my free e-book, Flying Business Class: 10 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, the goal is to draw lessons from big companies in an essential industry that can apply to leaders of smaller businesses.

Today's lesson? Whether you're dealing with employees or customers, sometimes the silver lining when somebody is angry at you is that, at least, they've shown you that they care.

This article originally appeared on Inc.

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