April 12, 2017

United Airlines Crisis: “We’re sorry” doesn’t help if you don’t care about your customers

A timeline of United Airlines impact on stock prices

United Airlines’ harsh treatment of a passenger on April 9th provided 34 seconds of intense video footage that few will forget.

To recap: passengers boarded United’s last flight of the day from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday when staff declared the plane was “over-booked.” Nobody volunteered to give up their seat, so four passengers were told to leave. One refused, police were called and moments later, an officer violently “deplaned” the customer, bloodying his face in the process. Smartphone video cameras recorded shrieks of bystanders and the sad sight of an elderly man being dragged away, live on Facebook.

Two defiant statements from a United spokesman and CEO Oscar Munoz followed (here and here). Munoz eventually apologized but few will forget that he blamed the victim (“disruptive and belligerent…continued to resist”) and praised the flight crew (“followed established procedures”). Munoz’s hard-hearted response transformed a sorry affair into a PR debacle.

But make no mistake. For United, this wasn’t an OMG moment where things went inexplicably awry. United’s PR debacle was the latest in a string of bad corporate behavior.

Last week, a passenger flying first-class from Hawaii to LA was threatened with “cuffs” after refusing to give up a seat on an over-booked flight (sound familiar?) In March, the airline tossed two young teenaged girls off a flight in Denver because they wore leggings. Two years ago, a disabled man crawled off a United flight in Washington, DC after the crew failed to assist him. United vigorously defended the indefensible acts of its employees in all of these incidents.

Now you understand why Bloomberg Businessweek published an article last year entitled “United’s quest to be less awful.”

Given the depth of public outrage, perhaps United will learn a lesson. They’re certainly paying a price. Less than 48 hours after the incident, the airline’s  stock plummeted by more than 4 percent (value of $1.4 billion.) #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos swiftly emerged as a top trend on Twitter featuring zingers like “We put the hospital in hospitality.” Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel mocked United’s “friendly skies” motto. So did the BBC with the deadpan headline, “Not so friendly skies.”

But what’s the lesson for other companies who want to protect their reputations from a similar scenario?

For starters, the United incident is not a Rorschach test about the soul of Corporate America. United Airlines has mistreated customers with impunity for years. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of companies can’t and won’t do that.

In fact, the most important lesson is found in the words Munoz shared with United employees shortly after the incident in Chicago: “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.”

by Scott Farmelant, Senior Vice President

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