Denny Flanagan: We Can All Learn From Him About Working From the Heart

I  received an e-mail message about an hour ago from Denny Flanagan — a veteran pilot and captain at United Airlines whom I have met several times and is well known amongst frequent fliers regardless of airline affiliation — announcing that there are fewer than two years before his retirement; and in that e-mail message was the following request:

“We connected through the years because of my proactive approach with you, my customers. I do not want to leave without having someone carry my torch and keep it burning.

“Here is how you can help. Last week a customer received my business card and posted it on LinkedIn. It has been getting some positive feedback. So if you are in the service business keep my torch lit by becoming personal with your customers.”

You got it — and by posting this article, it is the least I can do for you to help fulfill your request.

Simbah goes for a walk on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

Simbah goes for a walk on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

Also included in that e-mail message was a link to an article written by Wade Burgess — the aforementioned customer who thought he was going to be a passenger on just another typical and boring flight to San Francisco on an airplane operated by United Airlines…

…but that airplane was piloted by none other than Denny Flanagan — also known to frequent fliers as the more familiar Capt. Denny, which is how he signs his e-mail messages. He greeted Wade Burgess and other passengers with a smile as he welcomed them aboard the aircraft. Approximately two hours into the flight, frequent fliers and passengers seated in the business class cabin each received a handwritten note from Denny Flanagan expressing that they are valued customers and that their business is greatly appreciated; as well as a request on how the flight crew can exceed their expectations.

“I looked around and saw that all of the frequent fliers and business class passengers were reading similar cards and smiling”, wrote Burgess, who admitted that he is not easily impressed. “What a brilliant move. This captain probably created a greater personal connection to his company in 30 seconds than the formal loyalty program has in 30 years. I immediately started thinking about how I could apply this to my business. I encourage you to do the same.”

I know one other person in the airline industry who practices working from the heart and establishing personal connections similarly. His name is Richard Anderson, who is the chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines. He has responded to correspondence with handwritten notes personally signed by him. He has also answered every single e-mail message I have sent to him — not that I have a habit of bombarding him with e-mail messages, of course. How do I know they are from him? Because I have also corresponded with his executive staff, whom I know by first names as well; and if they respond to me on behalf of him, they sign the responses that way to ensure that that is clear.

From left to right: Steven Klamon, Brian Cohen and Richard Anderson at the auditorium of the training center at the world headquarters of Delta Air Lines just prior to Richard speaking to approximately 200 frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines in attendance on the first of four days of the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event. Photograph courtesy of Greg Johnston. Click on the photograph for more photographs from the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event.

From left to right: Steven Klamon, Brian Cohen and Richard Anderson at the auditorium of the training center at the world headquarters of Delta Air Lines just prior to Richard speaking to approximately 200 frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines in attendance on the first of four days of the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event. Photograph courtesy of Greg Johnston. Click on the photograph for more photographs from the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event.

I have met Richard several times. He has never been condescending to me at any time we have ever spoken in person; in fact, he can be rather refreshingly modest. With only one exception — and I have to believe that that exception must have been warranted; after all, he is the chief executive office of the most profitable commercial airline in the world as well as the chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber for 2014 — whenever he said to me that he will do something, he has always kept his word with me.

Here are two examples: at the luncheon to thank all of the employees of Delta Air Lines for the success of the first Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event back in June of 2009, Richard promised a larger budget for the second Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event back in October of 2010 — there was even a special weblog for that event hosted right here at BoardingArea, but it does not exist anymore — and boy, did he ever come through on that promise. Richard even attended the executive engagement session to speak to and interact with frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines; and not just for a couple of minutes — probably more like at least 30 minutes…

…and for the luncheon on the afternoon of March 14, 2011 to thank all of the employees of Delta Air Lines for the incredible success of that second event, Richard made sure to stop by for a few minutes to say a few words as he promised — and he apologized to me for not staying longer, but he had to deal with the emergency situation pertaining to Japan, which had just experienced a major earthquake. He could have simply canceled — and it would have absolutely been understandable, given the unusual and exceptional circumstances — but like Denny Flanagan, Richard Anderson keeps his promises.

Passengers of a delayed flight were treated to pizza — personally delivered by the beloved captain himself. Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

Passengers of a delayed flight were treated to pizza — personally delivered by the beloved captain himself. Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

You might already know that Denny Flanagan has been quite generous pertaining to supporting the Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund every year — such as back in January of 2014, for example. He has also graciously agreed on a regular basis to share his schedule in the hopes of seeing you aboard the airplanes on which he pilots — and you are welcome to drop by his sky office.

Despite their employers being competing airlines, I would like to see the day Denny Flanagan meets Richard Anderson in person — if that has not already happened. There are two traits which they share in common: both take the time out of their very busy schedules to personalize memorable experiences as a result of their interactions with people, which takes only minutes to accomplish; and like Richard Anderson, Denny Flanagan is a man of his word. I respect people who stand behind what they say they will do, as there are not many people like them in this world. We can all learn a lot from them. If they can do it, we can do it too.

I attempt to deliver a personalized experience as a volunteer moderator on FlyerTalk; and I would like to better personalize your experience whenever you read The Gate. Please let me know what can I do to keep the “torch” of Denny Flanagan “lit” by becoming more personal in my interactions with you — and let us keep “paying this forward.” Thank you in advance…

…and if you want to meet Denny Flanagan — arguably the most popular captain of United Airlines and truly a remarkable person, in my opinion — face-to-face to find out exactly what sets him apart from other captains and pilots, plan on doing so within the next two years before he retires…

Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

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