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Captain Denny: The 'Sully Sullenberger' of Pilot Service

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Think that airline employees are blasé about their jobs? Well, you haven’t met United Airlines pilot Captain Denny Flanagan (or Captain Denny as he is known). What a different world it would be if every airline employee were like him. 

Like the icon of airline safety --US Airways pilot Captain Chesley "Sullly" Sullenberger who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River in New York City without injury--Captain Denny is likened to the Sullenberger of airline service.  

Going above and beyond the call of duty, he personally calls parents of unaccompanied minors to tell them their child is okay, and does the same with pets owners who have animals on board.  He makes himself available to customers waiting to board, while passing out coffee.  

It's no wonder he's become a celebrity among United Airlines crew and passengers. This guy talks the talk and walks the walk. And yes, he's human. Even he sometimes forgets to turn off the fasten seat belt sign. 

Airfarewatchdog interviewed him between flights in Chicago

Q: What is your typical flight day like? 

A: Well, each flight begins with the crew brief. I see this as an integral part of what I do. It is my opportunity to connect with the crew and instill within them my ethos for flying. I put my hand to my heart and thank them for the great job they do taking care of our customers. I remind them that they spend more time with our customers than any other employee group. Flight attendants are rarely thanked enough for the great job that they do, and they often seem touched to be reminded from the captain how much we appreciate what they do. 

Q: There was a lot of talk with the recent merger between Continental and United that got down to the nitty gritty. Even down to the way that the airlines board pets in the cargo compartment. You have an interesting story there, tell us about it. 

A: Well, I recognize that pets undergo a traumatic experience when traveling in the cargo section. So if we have time, I will go down to the ramp and take a picture of the pet and show it to their owners to let them know that they are ok. Another pilot I know takes the carry on pets for a walk around the aircraft because they have been cooped up for quite awhile. 

Q: You are famous for some of the unorthodox things that you do when flying. You are a modest person, but tell us about some of those things. 

A: Well, it always bothers me when I see wheelchair passengers awaiting someone to push them up the jetway. So I always take the opportunity to push them through the terminal and show them how much we appreciate them. Also, unaccompanied minors are another major concern of mine. If I have kids flying alone, I will actually call their parents to let them know the flight attendants are taking great care of them. People are often not sure what to say when they answer the phone, but I know that I would want someone to do that for my child. I hate watching parents struggle with all of their gear and waiting for their strollers to arrive. Usually my first officer or myself will go retrieve the stroller so the family can have a seamless travel experience. 

Q: You have a thing with business cards. Please explain. 

A: Quite a few pilots write thank you notes to our business travelers. Additionally I write to our pass traveling employees in first class and customers in the middle seats of coach if time permits. I select the customers in the middle seats because when the flight attendant delivers the card from the captain the people sitting on either side of them wonder who this important person must be and are more willing to share the arm rest. 

Q: What do you think of the airline industry today? 

A: I have tremendous hope for our business. There are so many opportunities to connect with people and make a real difference. Captain Sullenberger of US Airways who safely landed his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River truly brought home to a lot of people how much trust they can instill in pilots. He set an example showing that thinking outside of the box can lead to tremendous success. He showed pilots that we can safely land a plane in the water; we are always learning from each other. I hope that I can encourage others to follow some of the practices that I do. Traveling is an amazing experience, and we should be ambassadors for that. 

Q: Let's face it. Sometimes luck just is not on the traveler's side. Do you still have the motivation and the opportunity to do some of the things you do with passengers during delays and cancellations? 

A: This is the chance for the airline and crewmembers to shine. When there is a delay, whether it be due to air traffic control, maintenance or weather, there is not much we can do. However, we can take control of the situation by giving passengers as much information as possible. I always like to buy doughnuts or other treats for passengers if there is an opportunity. Sometimes, I even have a "coffee with the captain" session where I walk around the gate area serving coffee and answering questions that passengers may have. When people feel like they are being listened to and taken care of, they take the delay in stride. Luckily, my company reimburses us for these types of good deed offerings, and they actually encourage it. 

Q: Why is it that when you light the fasten seat belt sign for turbulence, it can sometimes end up being very smooth? And the light just stays on for the rest of the flight? 

A: Turbulence is unpredictable. We can illuminate the sign when we know that the possibility of rough air lies ahead. Sometimes we get reports from other aircraft of turbulence in the area, and other times we have to simply study the weather radar. Pilots have a trick as to how they measure turbulence. We look at our coffee cup. If it is spills out of the cup, then we know it is pretty rough and that sign needs to be illuminated. We know many people need to get up to get their bags or use the restroom, so we try to turn it off whenever it is safe to do so. To be honest though, sometimes I have forgotten to turn it off. 

Q: Can electronics honestly interfere with the aircraft's navigation system? 

A: Yes they can, and it is especially critical when doing an instrument landing. With low visibilities we are looking for signs of the runway like the approach lights. It is paramount that we be on course and it has been proven that carry on electronics has an effect on our instruments. On departures they are asked to be off for the climb out from the airport because there is so much traffic and again it is paramount to be on course. 

Q: Why do you do what you do? Are you trying to change the airline industry for the better? 

A: I strongly believe that every customer deserves a good travel experience whether they travel with me or on another carrier. They deserve a safe and comfortable ride. As pilots, we have an opportunity to improve the travel experience of our customers and if a pilot from another carrier sees me serving coffee during a delay and likes the idea, that's great. By demonstrating to flight attendants and other pilots that they can do these small things and make a big difference, perhaps it will make a change. 

I am also a board director for the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund, which helps to fund aviation scholarships. Captain Dahl was at the controls of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 when he tragically lost his life. Last year we gave out $15,000 to young men and women interested in an aviation career.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com. Follow Airfarewatchdog on Twitter @airfarewatchdog for late-breaking unadvertised airfare sales and air travel advice.

 

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.