Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

I've been thinking a lot about happiness lately.

With respect to companies and their brands, you understand.

Recently, I wrote about a survey that suggested airlines lag far behind other categories in the happiness and love departments -- though Southwest came out best.

Many regular fliers might see why, although not all of this is the airlines' fault.

Still, in a recent interview with ABC News, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz intimated that there's really nothing his airline can do to make passengers happy.

He said: 

"It's become so stressful from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security. Frankly, by the time you sit on one of our aircraft... you're just pissed at the world."

Well, not always. 

I've actually had pleasant experiences on United, some of them even within the past year.

Yet Munoz added that no cookie or smile could make passengers feel better.

Oddly, his belief seems to be shared by other members of his management team.

It was moving, then, when Munoz's views were put to Delta CEO Ed Bastian by Marketplace.

His response was, well, quite direct: 

"I disagree. Those certainly aren't Delta customers he's speaking to."

Could it be that Delta customers somehow don't feel stressed by finding a parking spot and going through security?

Could it be they arrive at their seats only too delighted to be flying Delta?

In my most recent experience with Delta, I was indeed delighted to get on the plane, but only because the airline uses Terminal 1 at San Francisco Airport. 

This is a building designed by those with a pungent distaste for their fellow humans. (It's now being redeveloped.)

Still, Bastian insisted his customers tell surveys they're more and more pleased with the airline: 

"This industry is about more than just airplanes and technology. It's about people. And we have wonderful people that provide great service."

There's a wider issue here.

Munoz may be right that the rigors of travel, the tiresome nature of security procedures and, frankly, the minimal space airlines give passengers -- especially in Economy Class -- don't encourage those passengers to delight in flying.

This doesn't mean, however, that a business can't still motivate its staff to provide something if not exceptional, then certainly better than mundane or even defeatist.

Sheer thoughtfulness -- which, yes, might include a cookie, a smile, a shared joke, or a proactive helping hand -- can make the difference between a pleasant customer experience and a dreadful one.

For example, last week I flew TAP Air Portugal, and everything from the kind attitude of its flight attendants to the simple, thoughtful presentation of (free) food in Economy Class made the whole experience far better than it should have been, given that we were on a relatively cramped Airbus A321neo and flying into Heathrow Airport.

Munoz's words might have expressed his own exasperation with things (he believes) his airline simply can't control.

But you have to look at your customers' realities and decide to commit time, thought and, yes, even money to make them want to come back to you.

If you're in a service business -- and there are those who believe airlines are only in the business of getting you from one place to another -- dedicating yourself to service on a daily basis is very hard.

I actually think United is trying to do that.

It's odd, then, to hear its senior management saying it can't get there from here.

Published on: Jun 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.