The Friendly Skies of United Are Not So Friendly Anymore

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 13 April 2017

Tags: , ,

This week, United Continental Airlines forcibly ejected a paid and seated passenger, Dr. Dao, after he refused to be voluntarily bumped off the flight. He was leaving Chicago on United Continental express flight 3411 to Louisville Kentucky. During the scuffle, his mouth was bloodied and he was dragged down the aisles and pulled off the plane, while other passengers were astounded and shocked by the treatment. Video was captured during this traumatic event and shown on all the evening news broadcasts, sparking outrage on social media.  Articles were written in all major newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, which wrote an editorial against this incident. Additional ridicule and criticism occurred after it was made known that Mr. Munoz, United Continental’s CEO wrote to employees seemingly defending his employees’ actions over Dr. Dao and other passengers on the flight. On Monday, he said he “regretted the need to re-accommodate him and the other passengers.” And later in an email to employees, he struck a more defensive tone, stating that “while I deeply regret the situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you.” Only after additional criticism and rebuke by the press and in social media, did he change his views and release a statement that said, “I share all those sentiments and one above all express my deepest the apologies for what happened.”

The impact of this outrageous event hit a core deep in all our spines. In addition, it created a public relations nightmare and cast a cloud over turnaround efforts that have plagued the airlines for several years since its merger with Continental. How can anyone who works for this airline have a sense of pride and engagement? How does a company recover from this negative publicity?

I have purposely avoided United Continental for many years. My reasons are personal and stem from post-merger technology snafus, poor customer experiences at the gate, a convoluted reservation system, an archaic frequent flyer program reporting system and generally poor customer service in flight. To win me over, that has to change. However now, they also need to win over my trust that comes from every passenger interaction with their staff.

There are many things an airline in this situation can do, but I will refrain from offering remedies for the time being. What I want to focus on is what United needs to do to instill trust and advocacy among their employees so that they can provide a better customer and passenger experience.

  • Let’s start with more smiles. Whenever I interact with a United Continental staff member they seemed harried, angry and stressed out. Passengers and customers see this and react in kind. Staff members must feel welcomed, cared for and appreciated
  • Next United Continental must come up with a strategy to engage their employees to become part of the solution and provide better customer and passenger experiences. Senior leadership cannot do this on their own. They must create an employee task force that has power to implement processes and procedures to improve customer and passenger experiences. Employees must feel enabled and empowered to make a difference for the airlines.
  • There must be internal/external alignment of purpose, vision, and values that are expressed through external advertising and public relations as well as through internal dialogue and communications with staff. You can’t say one thing externally and something different internally. That is what happened initially in this case.
  • This airline must be customer focused always. That focus should drive all decisions and direction. In this particular situation, had the airlines been more engaged about the customer experience, they would have never even ejected a customer from the plane. They would have made other accommodations or moved people to Louisville from other destinations and could have avoided this public relations nightmare.
  • Lastly, United Continental must take ownership of this situation. Denial or making excuses just won’t cut it with your customers anymore. Fess up, take responsibility and tell the public what you’re going to do to fix the situation and to ensure that it never happens again.

If you have additional thoughts and comments and ideas how United Continental can improve this public relations fiasco and improve their customer experiences I would love to hear your ideas and would be happy to share them with Mr. Munoz as well.