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As a captain for United Airlines his number one job is to get you safely to your destination. However, it is his personal attention to his customers that has landed him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the morning shows of ABC, NBC and CBS. Realizing the negative expectations of airline travel, he will, when time permits, step out of his environment and engage his customers. It will not be uncommon to see him pushing a wheel chair, speaking with customers or purchasing meals during long delays. 


Captain Flanagan retired from the United States Navy and had a fulfilling career. He spent three years with the National Science Foundation in support of Operation Deep Freeze on the Antarctic continent. He flew ski-equipped Lockheed C-130 Hercules and provided logistics for scientific experiments. In future years he flew the Lockheed P-3 Orion whose mission was to maintain surveillance of the Russian submarine fleet, search and rescue of ships in distress in the Atlantic Ocean and locate drug runners in the Gulf of Mexico.

He is on the board of the Capt. Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund. Capt. Dahl was at the controls of Flight 93 on September 11th 2001 when terrorist tragically took his life. The crew and customers prevented the aircraft from reaching its intended target of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. and as a result it crashed in a farmer’s field near Shanksville Pa.


To keep Capt. Dahl’s memory and love of flying alive the scholarship was started to provide financial assistance to young men and women seeking a career in aviation. More information can be found at   

On a stopover, Capt. Denny, walks an appreciative Simbah,
a passenger's dog that travels in the belly of the plane.

 Capt. Denny Buys Pizzas For His Delayed Customers

The good captain serves coffee.


Additional Information on Captain Denny Flanagan


If your flight is hit by a lengthy delay, the pilot you want is Captain Denny Flanagan.


Holiday travel often comes with flights delayed by winter storms, mechanical failures, or schedule snafus. If your flight is hit by a lengthy delay, the pilot you want in the cockpit is Captain Denny Flanagan.


On a recent UA flight from Houston to Los Angeles, Flanagan made a gate announcement, introducing himself and sharing flight and weather information. Everyone looked up, expecting bad news, and when there was none, the talk turned to wondering who this captain was. A few minutes later, Flanagan stood at the plane door, handing out trading cards with stats about the Boeing 757 being boarded. After the unusual welcome on the PA, everyone buckled up, ready to depart.


However, when a routine inspection uncovered a small crack in the leading edge of a wing, Flanagan announced a 20-minute delay. That turned into an hour delay for maintenance, and another hour to complete the repair. Most folks got off the plane to try to rebook flights and find food. To the delight of those who stayed on board, Flanagan opened the galley doors and walked down the aisle, handing out free food as he asked the flight attendants to serve drinks.


During this season of holiday travel, when sniffles and delays run rampant, it was like getting an unexpected gift from Santa. “In the service business, the recipe for success is quite easy,” the pilot says. “Choose your attitude for the day, anticipate your customers’ needs, and exceed their expectations. I call the cockpit my sky office, and I’m the CEO. I run the airplane, and I take care of the crew and customers.”


Flanagan, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, said he flew C-130 transport aircraft in support of Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica and P-3 Orions (maritime surveillance aircraft) for 20 years before joining United in 1986. Since the Navy planes had crews of 14, the mission-oriented pilot routinely looked after those under his command.


Flanagan, who still flies in the Naval Reserve, kept that mindset when he became an airline pilot. After 9/11, when the airline industry was hit hard, 3,600 United pilots were furloughed. Flanagan, clearly a go-getter, decided to do what he could to build customer loyalty, hoping that as business came back, the pilots who had lost their jobs could also return to work.


Thus the gate announcements, the trading cards, and other little touches began. Whenever unaccompanied minors are on the plane, Flanagan calls the child’s parents before take-off to let them know all is well. During layovers, he writes thank you notes on the back of his business cards for the next flight, adding passenger names from the manifest after boarding.


“I usually give out 50 cards on each trip,” Flanagan says. “I write them to the passengers sitting in first class, and to those sitting in middle seats in coach. We’ve all been in that middle seat, and when the person on either side of you takes an armrest, it’s not that comfortable.”


The captain figures if a flight attendant hands the middle seat passenger a note from the pilot, those on either side will take notice and strike up a conversation. Usually, that conversation ends up with people sharing the armrests.


Many acts can be considered exceptional customer service, but the most meaningful ones are really unplanned acts of kindness. In 2008, a passenger who got one of Flanagan’s notes wrote back, asking if the pilot could get an electric wheelchair to a handicapped boy in Honduras. Flanagan’s calls to colleagues in United Cargo and then-Continental Airlines got the wheelchair delivered, at no charge, on Christmas Day.


During the holidays, Flanagan notices more leisure travelers and first-time flyers. Along with passing out pilot wings to kids in the gate area, he carries canvas bags in his suitcase to give to parents whose gift-loaded paper shopping bags have ripped. Whenever the captain sees military passengers traveling as a group, he gets on the PA at the gate and suggests how nice it would be to exchange seat assignments to make the trip more comfortable for those who are risking their lives to serve.


“I did this with one group of 20 young men and women flying together,” Flanagan recalls. “There was a lot of crying and oorahs, and every one of them got a seat in first class from another passenger.”


Flanagan’s positive attitude and willingness to engage with customers has made him a celebrity among frequent flyers who refer to him as “Captain Denny.” His flight schedule is posted on a blog and a number of fans book their flights around his flights.

A board posting from Goalie: “I met Capt. Denny at his arrival gate during a mutual layover at IAH. As we walked, there was a woman with her daughter walking in the opposite direction. In the blink of an eye, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a pair of wings and gives them to the little girl. The smile on that little girl’s face was what it’s all about.”


Flanagan has even been known to buy hamburgers or pizza for all his passengers when flights are delayed longer than two hours. United foots those bills.


In 2010, the airline filmed Flanagan, following him around on a typical day, and turned it into a training video shown to all new hires. While Flanagan is not the only pilot to provide great customer service, you have to wonder why more don’t stand out like him.

Customer service may be innate to Flanagan, but it’s also a skill that can be taught and a behavior easily measured. Flying safely, of course, must be at the top of a pilot’s performance review, but points for customer service should be in the mix, as well. “Captain Flanagan is an outstanding employee, and we support his–and all of our pilots’–efforts to go above and beyond for our customers to provide great service,” says Jennifer Dohm, a spokesperson for United. “As far as anyone can remember, Denny has always operated this way, and we commend his dedication to creating the most flyer-friendly experience he can for our customers.”

After a recent delayed flight landed, passengers received e-mails from United’s Proactive Recovery Operations Team, offering $50 off their next flight or extra bonus miles, as a gesture of appreciation.


Being proactive about customer service is essential for any business to survive and thrive. People like Flanagan are exceptional ambassadors for their companies.


“I like to treat my customers as if they were my family flying with me,” Flanagan says. “I’ve got a blessed life with my wife and children. When I see people in wheelchairs, injured soldiers, and those who aren’t as healthy as I am, riding on our planes, I’m even more grateful that I’m able to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is fly airplanes.”

Flying with Flanagan is an experience customers long remember. After all, who could forget flying with Santa’s helper?



"Capt. Denny Flanagan is a rare bird in today's frustration-filled air-travel

world--a pilot who goes out of his way to make flying fun for passengers."


When pets travel in cargo compartments, the United Airlines veteran snaps pictures of them, then shows owners that their animals are on board. He sometimes walks them on stopovers. In the air, he has flight attendants raffle off 10% discount coupons and unopened bottles of wine. He writes notes to first-class passengers and elite-level frequent fliers on the back of his business cards, addressing them by name and thanking them for their business. If flights are delayed or diverted to other cities because of storms, Capt. Flanagan tries to find a McDonald's where he can order 200 hamburgers, or kiosk that has apples or bananas he can hand out.

And when unaccompanied children are on his flights, he personally calls parents with reassuring updates. "I answered the phone to hear, 'This is the captain from your son's flight,' " said Kenneth Klein, whose 12-year-old son was delayed by thunderstorms in Chicago last month on a trip from Los Angeles to see his grandfather in Toronto. "It was unbelievable. One of the big problems is kids sit on planes and no one tells you what's happening. This was the exact opposite."


Mr. Lasser says he just wishes Capt. Flanagan weren't such a rarity among United employees. "Every flight before and most flights since have been so poor in customer service that this guy really came across as representing his own standards more than the company's. He's an outlier within United," Mr. Lasser said in an interview.


United has supported Capt. Flanagan's efforts. The airline supplies the airplane trading-cards he distributes at boarding, plus books, wine and discount coupons that he has flight attendants give away. He goes through about 700 business cards a month. United reimburses him for the food he buys during prolonged delays.


"He's a great ambassador for the company and "Chief Customer Officer," says Graham Atkinson, United's executive vice president. He hopes more pilots and airport workers will adopt some of Capt. Flanagan's techniques such as the frequent, detailed updates he gives to customers.


The Middle Seat


Air travel isn't easy for anybody, given problems ranging from storms to mechanical breakdowns to computer snafus and lost luggage. Capt. Flanagan tries to deal with the cheerfulness challenge -- at least on the flights he works. "I just treat everyone like it's the first flight they've ever flown," said the Navy veteran, "The customer deserves a good travel experience," he said.


Capt. Flanagan arrives at the gate an hour before the scheduled departure. If there is to be a delay, he will make an announcement about it before the gate agent arrives. He keeps passengers informed, mingling in the lounge answering questions and uses his cell to call United operations officials to ask how the delay will affect passengers with connections.


Once the plane is ready for boarding, Capt. Flanagan passes out cards with information about the Boeing 767. On every flight, he signs one or two of the cards on the back and, if there is wine left over from first class, he announces that passengers with his signature have won bottles of wine.


When the movie ended, flight attendants passed out napkins and passengers were invited to write notes about experiences on United -- good or bad. Fifteen were selected to receive a coupon for a 10% discount on a future United flight, and Capt. Flanagan posts the passengers' notes in crew rooms or sends them on to airport managers when they raise specific issues.


If others in the airline industry had the same attitude, it would go a long way to mitigating some of the negatives of recent airline travel.


Why a Handwritten Note & a Personal Touch

Works Better Than a Loyalty Program

One man on one flight changed my entire view of the airline industry. To go further, he restored my belief that one person can transform the world around them, regardless of circumstances.

Your ability to stand out is not limited by your company, your industry, or your position. You can change all of them by how you approach your work. Captain Denny Flanagan shows us how.

Like anyone who flies a lot, I’ve become numb to the complacent, transactional way airlines in the USA treat their clients. So on a recent Friday I was prepared for a typically underwhelming experience on a day trip to San Francisco. But the trail of zombies walking down the jet bridge to board this 6 am flight showed signs of life when greeted at the door of the aircraft by a captain handing out trading cards with the specs and information about the aircraft we were boarding. It seemed a little odd, especially his warm smile and “welcome aboard” greeting. I assumed it was another market test to answer a consultant’s question, “how would customers react if we pretended to like them?” But then I saw him head to the cockpit.

After about two hours a flight attendant delivered a handwritten note to me on the back of Captain Denny’s business card.

I looked around and saw that all of the frequent fliers and business class passengers were reading similar cards and smiling. 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.

To top it off, just before final descent Captain Denny came on the PA and said words to this effect, “…it was a pleasure to meet all of you as you boarded the plane and to provide you with a trading card about this aircraft. What you may not know is that I signed one of those cards. If you have the signed card, please ring your call button; you’ve just won a complimentary bottle of wine. It’s just our way of thanking you for choosing United today.”


I am not easily impressed. But the experience this man created was such a dramatic contrast to the hundreds of flights I’ve been on that I began to do some research. As it turns out, Captain Denny is a legend on the travel sites and trip reviews. My flight wasn’t an outlier; it was just another demonstration of excellence. The media has picked up on it, his coworkers are beginning to think differently, and formerly bitter or complacent customers are coming around, one by one.

What’s sad is that it’s extremely rare to find someone who treats their work the way Captain Denny Flanagan does, who in his own words, likes to “work from the heart.” And the special touches? “They takes seconds.” I never thought I’d be schooled and humbled by a United Airlines pilot regarding customer delight. But I am grateful that I was. Hats off to you, Captain. Now we all have to get to work to find ways to work from the heart and delight our customers.

Captain Denny Flanagan is Renowned For
Taking Customer Service to 'New Heights"


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