On United

Blog Post A Culture that Fuels Our Strategy

plane in flight

On Sunday evening, flight attendants on a United Airlines flight out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport asked several passengers to volunteer to de-board the plane because the flight had been overbooked. When no passengers volunteered their seats, several were selected at random. A 69-year old doctor was among those asked to de-board. He refused, and was forcibly dragged down the aisle and off the plane. A video captured the incident which left the man bloodied, going viral shortly thereafter and an uproar against United ensued.

The CEO said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” and the airline said in a statement that it “apologizes for the overbook situation.” It was not until the CEO and the public relations office of United offered their response that the uproar against United became a public relations disaster. Why? Because of inauthenticity and short-sightedness.

Oscar Munoz, United Airlines’ CEO, apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers, failing to reference the fact that being re-accommodated left one of their passengers bloodied and mumbling repeatedly the phrase, “just kill me.” This was re-accommodating gone terribly, terribly wrong. What people were reacting to was not that the flight was overbooked; instead, they were reacting to the fact that United Airlines appeared (whether rightly or wrongly) to show little regard for the man’s safety or dignity. It looked bad. So bad that Mr. Munoz chose not to address it. He chose to inauthentically characterize the situation as an overbooking problem when in fact United had a human-decency problem. This is not a wise approach.

The rationale for skirting the real issue could lay in the fear of lawsuits. Better to avoid the issue altogether, the thinking goes, then to expose ourselves to legal action. In this instance, short term problems were avoided at the risk of incurring much larger costs including alienating customers and damaging the company’s brand.

Many organizations face difficult issues and make mistakes. Organizations that cultivate strong customer loyalty admit to mistakes, just as we ask others to do when we are wronged, and work earnestly to rectify those mistakes. United Airlines failed to take these actions. If United wants to resurrect their reputation, they will likely have to address their failed attempt to avoid the issue, which is as much a problem as overbooking ever was.

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