I’ve worked with more than half a dozen airlines in my career, and a very wise, “elder statesman” of that business told me early in my career, “When you put an airplane somewhere it doesn’t belong, you’ve earned your spot as the lead story. The question is, how long will you stay there? That’s where we come in.”
The events of the passenger ejection from a United Airlines flight that have nearly broken the internet serve as a reminder that despite all the anxiety in boardrooms across America about a rogue White House tweet, a good old fashioned reputational crisis is usually something you’ve earned for yourself.
I am extremely empathetic to the team at United, because aviation is a tough industry, in every way. And so many of the systems, from air traffic control to yield management, were invented decades ago at a time when we didn’t see nearly the volume of people, take-offs or landings that we do today. And in a capitally intensive business like the airline industry, yield management, revenue per seat mile and cost per seat mile aren’t just jargon in an analyst report, they are the difference between surviving or joining the many airlines before them who’ve filed for Chapter 11, or Chapter 7.
The industry practice of over-booking flights no longer works, and it has been a time bomb waiting to explode. Add in the frustrating and often lengthy (although necessary) security process, being charged for luggage, snacks and in some cases, a blanket – the high probability of delays at one end of your trip or another and the extremely close quarters of airplane seats, it doesn’t take much for air rage to happen. And for it to happen, and to be broadcast on YouTube. This situation seemed to flip the script, where the bad behavior came from the employee, not the passenger.
Any airline faces this risk, and is only as good as the judgement of a single employee in a single moment. So this was a simple case of very poor judgement, followed by more poor judgement in the response, albeit with good intent. Companies must empower their employees to apply policies through the prism of good common sense – something that failed to come in to play in this situation, as well as the recent event related to “dress code violations.”
United began with the classic playbook of a CEO statement that seemed to be an apology of sorts, followed by a commitment to get to the bottom of things. However, it seems that the PR Week Communicator of the Year forgot a basic rule of communications – what you say on the inside will inevitably get to the outside – and in his employee email, United’s CEO shifted to a tone of defending his employees for following the policy, rather than questioning the merit of the policy itself. And while it is important for employees to know that management has their back, this is a situation where the original problem stemmed from putting employees (and the operation) ahead of customers.
Airline horror stories are particularly prime for going viral because we can all relate to a bad travel experience. And once an airline finds itself in the center of this kind of controversy, they become a target for even minor, routine incidents to become headline news. We’ve seen other airlines fall victim to this pattern, and it isn’t an easy pattern to reverse. So United finds itself at an important crossroads where the importance of running a perfect operation is paramount.
So what should United, or any company in this situation do from here?
First, United should undertake a comprehensive review of all its policies to ensure that they reflect the current state of air travel and a true commitment to putting customers first. Any policy that does not comply with these criteria should be updated, and the new policies should be communicated broadly both internally and externally.
From there, the airline must place an internal focus on empowering employees to use good judgement and common sense in the application of policies. United already experienced how an unreasonable application of a reasonable policy like a dress code can cause a customer backlash. And when employees do not have the power to do the right thing, bad things happen.
Once the airline has ensured that its own house is in order, it should look for the opportunity to lead the industry in improving situations for customers. Much like JetBlue created a customer bill of rights governing weather related situations, United has the opportunity to improve outcomes for customers and crew around the issue of overbooking, which is becoming increasingly common in the industry, particularly as technology enables airlines to more efficiently manage and move inventory on its flights.
And in the meantime, they must be incredibly vigilant about running a perfect operation from a customer service standpoint to avoid any situations that would continue the narrative that there is a pattern of customer mistreatment at United.