United Has an Operational Problem in Denver

We’ve seen the same story play out all over the country. Airlines figure they can save some money by outsourcing their airport ramp operations and, at least in the short run, customers pay the price. That’s exactly what’s happening right now in Denver with United Express. Bags are being delayed and flights aren’t running on time. If you’re flying on United Express (or United mainline for that matter) to or through Denver, brace yourselves.

In Denver, United has its own people working on the ramp loading bags, cargo, and performing all the other functions necessary to get an airplane going from the ground. But United Express has long been handled by SkyWest. Last year, United decided it was paying too much for the work, so it opted to go with a low cost provider, Simplicity. Simplicity is a subsidiary of Menzies, and that’s a company that is definitely experienced in handling this work. The problem is that you’re only as good as the people you hire.

The job description didn’t have anything out of the ordinary in it. The only thing that stood out was that candidates “Must be available and flexible to work variable shifts including overtime, weekends and holidays.” Must be available for overtime? That sounds pleasant. Then again, the pay makes it so that overtime would probably be highly desirable. Though I didn’t see the pay rates on the Simplicity site, the company has gone out to craigslist with job postings. I’m told that they started at the Colorado minimum wage of $8 an hour. But a post I saw from December 18 shows they’d gone up to $11. Then a post on January 2nd showed them offering $12 an hour. Clearly they aren’t getting the people they need if the rate keeps going up.

I first received a heads-up about this back in November. At that point, Simplicity had taken over a couple gates for training and I’m told things were not going well. I was warned to keep an eye on things, because once the switch happened, it would be ugly. That appears to have been correct.

It didn’t take long before reports of baggage chaos started coming in. It took forever for bags to come out on the carousel, and there were also reports of bags being handled improperly. We won’t know the extent of this until the DOT report on mishandled bags comes out for December, but we can see the impact in other ways already.

While bags may be taking a long time to get to the carousel, you can imagine that means connecting bags are also having problems. And that means delays. Since bags connect between mainline and Express flights all day long, the delays can bleed over into United’s mainline operation as well.

I took a look at on-time performance in Denver from December 15-31 using masFlight.com to get an idea of how things were going. United mainline saw 69.8 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule but only 52 percent depart within 15 minutes of schedule. For United Express, the numbers were worse. A mere 60.7 percent of flights arrived within 14 minutes of schedule with only 46.2 percent of flights departing within 15 minutes of schedule. That’s just bad. While the arrival rates aren’t great (behind Southwest at a not-so-good 72.6 percent rate but still better than Frontier at 61.9 percent), you can see that the airline is clearly losing time in the Denver hub and departure rates are worse. That, of course, delays those airplanes coming back to Denver later in the day, further impacting on-time arrival performance. It’s not good.

What’s the fix? I can’t imagine we’re going to see United walk away from this vendor, but there have to be some performance guarantees in the contract somewhere. It appears that Simplicity is already raising rates to try to find more of the right people. This has happened before. Eventually it’ll all get smoothed out, but for now, bring your patience with you if you’re flying United in Denver.

[Original airport ramp photo via Shutterstock]

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Muscat,  Oman
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