At United, Actions Sadly Do Speak Louder Than Words

A recent experience proves the airline needs more than a new slogan.

On Thursday morning, I boarded United Flight 1176 at San Francisco International Airport for a nonstop flight to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

What happened next was startling and revealed that, amid one of the biggest public relations debacles in recent memory, United’s skies are anything but friendly.

After a mechanical delay, it was clear the busy flight crew wanted to achieve an on-time departure. As I settled into my seat, a flight attendant berated a flustered passenger for not placing her luggage in the overhead bin fast enough.

The customer, who had a seat in coach, apologized and said she didn’t realize she could store her luggage in the front of the aircraft.

“I just made an announcement,” the exasperated flight attendant scolded the passenger loud enough for many passengers to hear. “Put your luggage in any available overhead space. We are running late. We need to take off!”

“Can you believe this?” I said to the man seated next to me.

His name is John and he happens to be CEO for a consumer goods company. (I agreed at John’s request to withhold his last name as well as the name of his company.)

Even worse, John explained, the same crew member had just insulted another passenger who struggled to board the plane while carrying both her toddler and a child safety seat.

“That woman doesn’t deserve to be a mother,” the flight attendant grunted. Fortunately, John said, the young mother had moved on and hadn’t heard the insulting comment.

The experience of those of us on Flight 1176 suggests that United still has a long recovery ahead from the outrageous April 9 cellphone video showing a passenger being dragged off an airplane beaten and bloodied.

As our flight took off, John and I read through five newspapers between us—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today. All five papers featured a letter of apology signed by United CEO Oscar Munoz in the form of a full-page advertisement.

The headline: “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.”

Yes, they do. But, in both actions and words, the crew member of Flight 1176 fell short at the same time the CEO is promising customers that United is “changing the way we fly.”

The six bullet points in the United ad promise new boarding procedures and policies pertaining to the removal of passengers from flights, an increase in financial incentives for rebooking customers and the elimination of red tape on permanently lost bags.

Nowhere does the letter mention the importance of treating passengers with dignity and respect.

“This guy doesn’t get it,” John said.

Moments later, John pointed to a news story on the cover of the USA Today Money section headlined “United makes big changes in the wake of uproar.” It quoted Munoz saying, “Our challenge is just to fly the way we’ve always done, which is friendly, and prove to folks that there’s nothing to worry about.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. United flying “the way we’ve always done” is precisely what worries passengers ― or, “folks,” as Munoz calls us.

After we took off, I approached the offending flight attendant and asked her name. She responded, “Why, was I being rude?”

When I told her I was troubled by her treatment of the young mother, she countered that the passenger had ignored instructions to leave the safety seat behind.

What about chewing out the customer who was trying to store her bag in the overhead bin?

“Did you hear the announcement that I already made?” she said curtly.

Clearly, there was no winning this argument. But it demonstrated how United’s crisis cannot be ameliorated with a penance tour of Munoz doing TV interviews or greeting customers at the gate or smiling at ticket counters. This is not merely a PR challenge, but a cultural and organizational problem rooted in corporate leadership.

As CEO, Munoz has a responsibility to motivate and inspire every United employee to treat passengers much better than in the past. And he has to give crew members the tools and training to turn that commitment into real reforms.

Real progress at United has to occur across the entire organization. United needs to reduce the stress levels that prompt the kind of harassing behavior we witnessed on Thursday’s flight. Change the incentives and penalties for harried flight crews under pressure to keep tight schedules. Reward employees for happy passengers.

A few minutes after landing, I turned on my iPhone and received an email with United’s new slogan in the subject line: “Actions Speak Louder than Words.”

“As CEO,” Munoz wrote, “it’s my responsibility to make sure we can learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

As John lamented, United has a long way to go.

Glenn F. Bunting, a former Los Angeles Times editor and reporter, is founder and president of the San Francisco-based communications firm G.F.Bunting+Co.