What We Can Learn From the United Airlines Incident

What We Can Learn From the United Airlines Incident
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I watched the entire United incident unravel on TV and the Internet with great amazement. This is, perhaps, one of the worst PR debacles I have seen in my long career. Botched from the very beginning, it has now become viral, and made United Airlines and its “Friendly Skies” tagline a joke. People are genuinely angered and disgusted with United on a level unseen before. And United’s inept CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t help.

We can learn a lot from this “goons gone wild” story.

No customer should ever be treated like Dr. Dao was. United forgot why it even exists. I typically ask the CEOs I coach to tell me why their company exists. Few get the right answer. Of course your company exists to make a profit. That’s a given! But it makes that profit by delivering some kind of product or service to its customers. Those customers are the reason your company exists. Without them, there is no company, let alone any profits. United lost sight of this axiom. Profit became such a driving factor, that it forgot about the customer. United wasn’t hauling cargo. It was transporting people, all of whom needed to get somewhere soon, or they wouldn’t have paid United to take them there. In its desire to get a flight crew to another location (so it wouldn’t lose money), United decided to bump the very people who provide its revenue. No doubt, the cost to Untied for the greedy decision is far more than what it would have cost to offer a higher price to its customers to voluntarily give up their seats. As of the writing of this article, United lost $250 million in market value. It was as high as $1.4 billion, but rebounded after a couple of days. To me, that’s enough reason to fire a CEO.

United could have offered another couple of hundred dollars (or even a thousand dollars more) to get some people to step off the plane, but instead, it chose to drag a man off after brutalizing him, costing millions in market value and probably millions to come later in the inevitable lawsuit. And the bad PR will go on for years. What were they thinking?

In his first statement, Oscar Munoz said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” This is one of the worst things Munoz could have said…particularly that United was “re-accomodating” these passengers. I hope they never re-accommodate me like that.

Then Munoz made this statement to his employees: “As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” Obviously, Munoz still didn’t get the gravity of the situation. His employees followed established procedures. I’d like to review those procedures, particularly the ones that allow passengers to have their noses broken, teeth knocked out, and given concussions before being dragged like a limp ragdoll off the plane. He said his employees went above and beyond. Above and beyond what? The rules of engagement in unarmed combat? And he stands behind his employees. How about standing behind your customers, Oscar?

Finally, Munoz came out with a real apology, but it was too late. No one believes he is sincere after these first two statements. We all sense he had to do it at the urging of his damage control team. Now his apology is just a joke.

The problem is with the culture of United. The lack of concern for its customers is systemic. It has been going on for years. Back in 2011, I was bumped from an international United flight. The next flight was 24 hours later…so I would miss an entire day of my vacation, lose a prepaid day in my hotel, and have to rebook a connecting flight. All of this cost me far more than the $600 they gave me. The worst part about it was that no one at United cared. The gate agent didn’t want to be bothered and referred me to their customer service counter. When I got there, 25 people were ahead of me in line with only two agents working. It took two hours to get someone to talk with me, and they basically said there was nothing they could do. They were rude and dismissive. I felt like I was a burden to them. When I finally walked away, the line had ballooned to about 40 people. United was terribly understaffed to handle that kind of influx of disgruntled customers.

I vowed never to fly United again, unless it was my absolute last choice. Until then, I had been a loyal customer, but they went to great efforts to lose me forever. Since then, I have spoken with numerous flyers who commiserate about their United experiences.

Until someone enlightened takes the reigns at United, this culture of putting the customer last behind profits and employees, will continue. United, like the rest of us, needs to keep in mind why it exists…to serve its customers and provide them with the best service possible. Empirical studies and anecdotal information has shown us time after time, that companies that put customers first are more profitable than those that don’t.

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