A Lesson From the Friendly Skies

Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics June 2022
Volume 166
Issue 6

A twice-cancelled trip, a delayed flight, and a United Airlines employee can show retail pharmacies how it’s done.

The COVID-19 pandemic and immunization seems to be winding down for us in the community pharmacy space. As I’ve seen over the past 41 years of pharmacy practice, we will not take time to celebrate victory but will move on to the next crisis. Crisis management is how we seem to operate.

I remember back in the 1980s when the battle was for more than average wholesale price plus $2.55 reimbursement. In the 1990s the battle was with drug utilization review and the HIPAA, and although many independent pharmacies closed during that time, we still survived.

Independent pharmacies are still surviving thanks to those hard-nosed businesspeople/pharmacists who work relentlessly to keep out of the jaws of the major chains; sometimes we feel like guppies in a tank of piranhas. But in spite of those outside influences, we take care of every individual patient who reaches out to us for our expertise and help.

I’m typing this column as I sit in Pittsburgh International Airport. My amazing wife of 41 years planned this trip 3 years ago. Our trip has been canceled twice, but we are now ready to fly to Washington, DC, connect in Frankfurt, Germany, and then jet off to Prague. Denise, my wife, has been vigilant in following all the recommendations. Yesterday we spent the morning at an independent pharmacy, Perry Drug Store in Perryopolis, Pennsylvania – the only place within 100 miles of us that performed immediate PCR tests.

Our results were negative. Our luggage was checked in. We brought our own lunch and arrived 3 hours early…and we just got a text saying our flight from Pittsburgh to Washington has been delayed by an hour. We will miss our flight to Frankfurt. Tough luck, go figure it out is the vibe I’m getting as I sit here at gate A-4.

Daniel, a young United Airlines employee, has wheeled over a snack cart and is assisting passengers. He gives Denise word that he has everything taken care of. We will still arrive in Washington on the same flight, still 1 hour late, but Daniel has made arrangements for us to take a different flight—this one on a different airline—to Germany. Taking care of customers who have spent years preparing for this vacation is his first priority, even if it means steering business to a rival airline.

United Airlines has taken a beating over the years regarding their customer service. In 2009, singer-songwriter Dave Carroll released “United Breaks Guitars,”1 a song that went viral and dropped the value of their stock 10% in a matter of 1 week. In 2017, the airline took another hit when reports emerged of their forcible removal of a passenger from a flight due to overbooking.2

Since then, United has responded positively to an outpouring of negative publicity. My personal experience with the company was also a positive one. Daniel didn’t say,“It’s not my problem,” or “I’m not the guy who made the plane an hour late.” He didn’t say, “It isn’t my job;” instead, he took care of the people standing in front of him. We pharmacists do the same thing to serve our patients: We spend hours on the phone with insurance companies who create problems for us to solve.

The big 4 pharmacy chains have also taken a hit, at least on social media, and pharmacists are leaving in droves. Frequently, these posts show signs stating the pharmacy is “closed for business due to lack of staffing.” Will the pharmacists and pharmacy employees be the ones to bring these big 4—who routinely understaff and provide unpleasant working conditions—to their knees?

United Airlines learned a valuable lesson and has trained their employees to take care of the people in front of them. Pharmacists at the big 4 want to do the same. But working conditions in these pharmacies are miserable at best, and pharmacists are quitting in droves. Anytime you see a pharmacist counting pills, answering an unscreened phone call, or ringing a cash register, it is a failure. The big 4, and many others, continue to fail. Pay attention to what United does: Take care of your employees and they will take care of your patients.


1. Carroll D. United breaks guitars. Uploaded July 6, 2009. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

2. Neuman S. Officers fired after forcible removal of United airlines passenger. Published October 18, 2017. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/18/558469185/officers-fired-after-forcible-removal-of-united-airlines-passenger

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