First, Guitars; Now United Throws Passengers from Its Planes!

Posted on 20. Apr, 2017 by in Customer Relationships

Is this another comment on United Airlines’ poor handling of overbooked flight 3411 on Sunday, April 9?  Sorry, but yes.  As an observer of the customer experience; and as an occasional critic of United’s policies and practices; and having mentioned the ‘Dave Carroll story’ previously (click here for Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars”), I couldn’t help but look at last week’s PR nightmare and be dismayed by United’s inability to learn and evolve.

Why Won’t United Learn?

I tracked down Carroll (the musician whose guitar was damaged by United back in 2009) to find out if he’d joined in Dr. Dao’s defense.  Carroll reports he was coincidentally returning from a customer satisfaction conference at Disney World when the overbooking incident occurred.  While Carroll says he’s not currently contemplating writing another song (he wrote two other ‘United Breaks Guitars’ songs to join his original) he has a lot to say about the implications from the current incident.  Here’s a summary of Carroll’s observations with my own comments interjected.

  • A Culture of “Us Against Them”  United suffers an endemic, cultural flaw. Carroll points out – from his own experience – that the abuse and disrespect he (and subsequently, Dr. Dao) received suggests disrespect for passengers is endemic to the United corporate culture. It’s an “us against them” perspective Carroll says, explaining that customers have never been acknowledged as a vital component of the United business model. Rather, customers are perceived as a factor to be contended with. Carroll calls this a “war room mentality” – someone has to win, there will be many losers.
  • An Employee Epidemic  Carroll’s interaction with United went so deep into the organization that he came to feel that there was a ‘sickness’ within the company. A direct quote from a United employee put emotion into this feeling, “If you think it’s bad flying with us, try working here!
  • Failure to Accept Blame  In United’s effort to deflect responsibility they show a total lack of compassion for their passengers.  I’ve previously discussed the futility and incorrectness of trying to duck blame.  When disasters occur, companies need to take ownership and move forward.
  • Branding Naivete  A failure to understand that passengers create value for any brand through their positive word of mouth.  In their many conversations with others about their interaction with any company, they become ‘storytellers’.  United’s dreadful mishandling of Sunday’s flight has fueled millions of people to share a very negative story about its brand.  (Total viewings of the video stand at 17 million and counting!)
  • A Lack of Understanding  United’s initial explanation for the forceful deplaning of Dr. Dao cited the airline’s Terms of Carriage. As I understand this document, the terms primarily relate to actions prior to boarding an aircraft – nullifying their application to passengers already seated on an aircraft!  If I’m correct, United’s staff and management aren’t very familiar with their own documents, showing a lack of proper training.  As a vital part of any service organization, when training is either incomplete or misguided the performance of the organization is doomed.

To hear Carroll’s own commentary, click here.

An Amateur’s PR Performance from An Awarded Corporate Communicator

Ultimately United’s top management revealed their own company-centric view of their business; their complete lack of compassion; and their total disregard for their customers.  Responding to the forceful deplaning of Dr. Dao, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, though recently recognized as PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year, embarrassed himself by adopting a familiar, yet totally flawed PR path:

Monday, April 10

First thing Monday morning, CEO Munoz blamed the passenger for the incident and told United employees he supported them 100% and that “we’ll get through this”.

Later Monday, he continued to defend United’s employees, though he globally expressed regret for the “situation”.

Tuesday, April 11

By Tuesday, Munoz’s attitude had softened a bit.  He then describes the “event” as “horrific” and now offers his “deepest apologies for ‘what happened’”.  In addition, he makes a commitment to “fix what’s broken” and promises a review by April 30.

Wednesday. April 12

Then, on Wednesday morning, in a live TV interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, Munoz admits feeling “shame” when he saw the video of Dr. Dao being dragged from the flight.  (This is Munoz’s first recognition of an actual person being involved and possibly harmed.)  He goes on to say, “This can never – will never happen – again on a United Airlines flight. That’s my premise and that’s my promise.”

Later Wednesday, United announces it will give a full refund to every passenger on the flight.

How Does United Measure Up with Passengers?

To add some external objectivity to this discussion I thought it might be instructive to take a look at last year’s ACSI rankings for the Airline industry.  ACSI reported an airline industry average of 72, with scores ranging from a high of 80 (JetBlue and Southwest) to 62 (Spirit).  United falls below the other two major airlines, American (72) and Delta (71) at a lukewarm score of 68.

CEO Munoz, in his latest interviews, has found the appropriate ‘voice’ and perspective for the leader of a ‘broken’ organization.  It remains to be seen whether his words are simply issue-urgent rhetoric or indicate an actual awakening.  I hope they’re the later.

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