Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

United Airline’s Fiasco is a Symptom of Underlying Issues

The bodily removal of a passenger from an April 9th United Airlines flight got people talking, especially about customer experience.

The experience wasn’t limited to the customer who was physically removed from the plane. It was experienced by all the passengers who witnessed it firsthand and all the prior or potential customers who witnessed it via the news and social media.

It’s another blow to the reputation and brand of a company already known for its cavalier treatment of Dave Carroll’s guitar. You may have heard his musical protest United Breaks Guitars, which he wrote after giving them a chance to correct the problem.

The latest event, coupled with the CEO’s response, suggests they haven’t learned their customer service lesson yet. So, what’s the problem and what can they do?

Customer Service

It’s perhaps even worse that this was a result of poor planning for employee transportation rather than an overbooking issue. Either way, it likely won’t be the last time there are more people than seats.

There were multiple opportunities for United Airlines to avoid this situation. Here’s what they could do in future:

  • Know if the plane is overbooked and whether any employees need seats on the flight.
  • Ask for volunteers to give up their seats – with appropriate incentives – before boarding even begins!
  • Increase the incentive if that doesn’t produce results.
  • Approach passengers personally to seek their help, if broad announcements aren’t working.
  • Start boarding only after it’s certain there is one person for each available seat!

If the CEO’s letter to employees is accurate in its assertion that employees followed the correct procedure, there are even more issues with their procedures.

The bottom line:  Make sure the company has a customer service philosophy that is backed up with processes and practices to make it reality.

Customer Experience

Let’s suppose for a moment there was no way for them to know in advance that they needed seats for employees on that plane. Everyone has boarded. Here’s how they could have handled it:

  • Explain they made an error, followed by a polite ask and incentive. Holding all passengers hostage by saying the flight will not leave until four people give up their seats doesn’t set the tone for cooperation.
  • If volunteers aren’t responding to the incentive, ask for customers to “make an offer.” Regulations allow for negotiations.
  • If those employees could get where they needed to be via a later flight or even a different airline, get them those seats! Think outside the box for options.
  • Or if a slightly later flight on another airline can be booked for a passenger willing to wait – do that! For that matter, it’s about a five-hour drive. Could a driving service have taken the employees?
  • Barring that, they could have asked again for other volunteers after the man in the video apparently said he was a doctor and had to return to see patients. That may have generated some sympathy.

The bottom line:  Think outside the norm and turn a potentially negative situation into a story so positive and exceptional that it could well have been shared via social media.

Reputation and Brand

With video providing undisputable proof of what happened, the company cannot deny that something went terribly wrong! Even though the security personnel work for the airport, and not for United, they were doing the bidding of the airline. The damage to the airline’s reputation and brand is likely to be extensive and long-term with the numerous first-hand accounts and news coverage being distributed through social media.

And to add insult to injury, CEO Oscar Munoz followed the incident with a couple of significant missteps.

  • The first apology took a bad situation and made it worse by apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers.” Huh?! It did not appear genuinely apologetic at all and understated or ignored the impact on all the passengers who had to get off the flight.
  • In a letter to employees that became public, he called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.”

There is a whole industry dedicated to apologies – covering the right tone, words, and setting, among other things. It doesn’t take an expert to know he missed the mark entirely!

The second apology, issued on Tuesday sounds more sincere, but it comes too late. Had this been the tone and words of the first apology, the company might have been on its way to recovery. But at this point, it is damage control more than it is customer service recovery. He was right about one thing, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

The company’s stock price fell and, according to the Washington Post, the video and story has been shared extensively in China, one of the airline’s major markets.

In his third apology on ABC’s Good Morning America, Munoz admitted it was a “system failure” and said United would review its policies.

The bottom line:  Understand the customer’s perspective before you act if you want to protect your reputation and brand.

If you respect the customer as a human being, and truly honour their right to be treated fairly and honestly, everything else is much easier. ~ Doug Smith


The company appears to have issues with its culture and processes. Changes need to be real and thorough to avoid more of these types of incidents in the future. Given the initial missteps by the CEO, the recovery is broader than just this incident.

Customer service recovery starts with the commitment Munoz made in apology #2: “We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

Leadership from the top is critical. That means a genuine apology, a real commitment to identify all the breakdowns and issues from start to finish.

Values, including ones specific to customer service need to be in place and be supported with processes and employee empowerment. United may be Connecting People. Uniting the World. as written in the company’s stated purpose but at this point it’s uniting people against the airline. It’s also clear their value, “We Fly Friendly” is not one they live.

Understanding customers is key to getting service and all the supporting elements right. They would be wise to spend time learning about their customers’ perspectives, needs and wants. It could help lead to better processes and policies.

Change in processes are obviously necessary, especially given that the CEO’s letter suggested current ones were followed correctly.

Training in customer service is required and not just for those at the front lines. Customer service is more than a skill. At successful companies, it’s a culture and a mindset that guides their actions.

Hire to fit the culture. Skills are teachable – but attitude – not so much! Maybe this needs to start at the top . . .

Latest Developments

Since this article was drafted, United has held a news conference and issued a news release outlining some of their planned actions.

The incident also received attention in the company’s quarterly earnings call, showing just how important the recovery will be.

Naturally the passenger, Dr. David Dao, is suing the airline. How the airline responds to that will help also determine how much longer this issue stays in the news.

The bottom line:  Company culture does not change overnight and it takes effort throughout the organization. The changes required are no small feat, but they are critical in a world where good news travels fast and bad news travels at light speed.

Please get in touch if you have customer service challenges I can help with.