United, already lowest of the low, gets worse; now what?

If an official at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman or Nieman Marcus told guards to drag a customer out of one of their stores, the video would be a momentary flourish.

That’s because everyone knows those retailers’ long-standing reputations for excellent service, customer-first decision making and a culture in which such behavior would be an aberration.

Now let’s look at United Airlines, whose stock is falling and whose reservations are going away [one must assume] in the wake of a viral video showing guards bloodying and dragging a passenger down the aisle of a plane in Chicago Sunday night.

The 30-second video, complete with screams, is of a doctor who declined to leave his flight, which the airline had oversold, because he was randomly selected to get off.

The key word here is “airline.” Because all airlines are held in such low regard by the traveling public that they are ripe to be abused, disliked and hated when they really screw up. Seats are too narrow. “On-time” means 80 percent of the time. “Meals” are peanuts or pretzels. Non-stops are rare. And the gate where you land is usually two miles and a half hour tram ride away from the gate from which your next flight will leave in 10 minutes.


The whole flying experience — airport traffic, TSA security, airline rules, the flights themselves, baggage collection and airport traffic again — is horrible. And the airlines are only part of that.

But let’s turn to what United should do now. In short, everything it possibly can, and fast.

CEO Oscar Munoz’s apology was insincere, and then he appeared to blame the passenger. Later Tuesday, almost 40 hours after the initial video went viral, he apologized to the passenger. But he failed to keep up with or grasp the speed of social media. That apology should have been posted in the wee hours of Monday morning, if not late Sunday.

And where was the captain and crew? Why didn’t someone stop this affront? Did all the passengers understand that if someone didn’t accept a financial incentive four people would be randomly removed? And did United explain that the four people who needed seats were a United flight crew?

The answer lies in the firm belief of most fliers that they are simply a butt in a seat — and a narrow one at that. They’re not customers. They’re not preferred. They’re no longer cared about or for. Their money provides the minimum, or less.

We are, in reality, a number for a computer to spit out so guards can force you from the flight the airline promised you you had a reservation for.

As The Chicago Tribune reported:

Munoz said United is conducting a detailed review of the incident, which he called “an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” At the same time, United defended its policies and its employees while saying in a letter to employees Monday night, “there are lessons we can learn from this experience.”

Here’s one: The legal maximum an airline can offer a passenger to voluntarily leave a flight is $1,350. Passengers on this flight were offered $800 as the max. If I were United, I’d go to the max, and say so starting today, every time a United flight is overbooked for the next two weeks.

“We’re full, if you elect to take another flight, we’ll guarantee you’re booked on it now and give you the max, $1,350.”

Here’s another: Announce now that you will no longer oversell flights. End the practice, which is obnoxious at its inception.

Restaurants don’t add a random couple to your dinner reservation for four. Car rental companies don’t place people in the back seat and tell you to drive them to their destination, or you can’t have a car. And has anyone ever showed up for a cruise only to find another family in your cabin? Uber doesn’t stop and pick up extra passengers when you’ve called for a ride to the airport.

I’d additionally announce an immediate revamp of United customer service. Top to bottom. I’d hire the consultants that make Amazon, Saks, Tom’s Shoes, Apple and any other number of beloved brands so popular. And then I’d commit time, effort and money to investing in changing the company’s attitudes from the top.

It’s been done. Chrysler under Lee Iacocca. Apple under Steve Jobs. Amazon under Jeff Bezos.

Flying on United is a choice. And the entire company needs an attitude transplant — as does every other airline — short of Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Singapore airlines. And fast. And if I were Delta, Southwest, Jet Blue, and all the others, I’d take this as a teaching moment and react.

Finally, I’d express shame, apologize for complete corporate failure, and keep repeating that. For…the…rest…of…your…career.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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