A little compassion would have gone a long way for United Airlines

April 17, 2017 - by: Dan Oswald 3 COMMENTS

Seat Rows inside an Airplaneby Dan Oswald

Imagine you own a restaurant. It’s a small, cozy place that caters to families and has a great reputation not only for the food but also for the atmosphere. One evening, a customer comes in and orders that night’s special. When his entrée arrives, he takes issue first with the temperature and then with the taste of the dish. Having already served it to dozens of other patrons already this evening, your staff is both surprised and skeptical. After they apologize and offer his dinner for free, the customer continues to complain loudly, becoming the focal point of the entire restaurant.

Your staff isn’t sure what to do at this point. They clearly have a dissatisfied customer who is now infringing on the dining experience of other customers. They’ve apologized repeatedly and offered to comp his dinner to no avail. Not sure what else to do, they ask the customer to please leave. This only makes him angrier. The staff members point out that the restaurant reserves the right to deny anyone service and again ask him to please leave. He refuses. At their wit’s end and in an effort to provide an enjoyable dining experience to the other customers, they finally call the local police to come help remove the man from the restaurant.

The police show up, and you now have a scene. The other customers look on with rapt attention as the police arrive to escort the customer out of the restaurant. They ask the customer to come outside with them, but he refuses. He’s more upset now than ever, and the situation appears to be escalating. The police give him one more chance to leave the restaurant before forcibly removing him. He again refuses. So the police now grab the customer and drag him from your restaurant. In the commotion, a table is knocked over as the man flails against the officers, resulting in a gash on the customer’s forearm.

A member of your staff calls you to let you know what just transpired. After hearing your employees’ side of the story and speaking with the police, you determine that your staff followed the restaurant’s protocol. They apologized to the customer, repeatedly. They offered his dinner free of charge. They politely asked him to leave after he became a disruption to other customers, invoking your policy to refuse service to anyone. Then, when the situation escalated, they called for professional help instead of attempting to forcibly remove the customer themselves. You confirm their handling of the situation in an e-mail that goes out to all employees.

Yet the next day, the local newspaper’s website has the story, including video taken by other customers and a copy of your e-mail to the employees. The coverage and the comments on the newspaper’s site aren’t flattering to you or your restaurant. In fact, you’re being vilified for the handling of the situation. It’s a blow to a small business in a local community.

Sound familiar? You’ve probably guessed by now, but the situation I just described is similar to the one United Airlines found itself in when a passenger refused to leave a plane. My assertion is that the mistake wasn’t made by the crew on the plane—it was the company’s handling of the fallout that followed when the video of the incident went viral and the media jumped on the story.

As a frequent traveler, I don’t like the fact that the airlines, in their “contract of carriage,” allow themselves the right to remove passengers from a flight under certain circumstances. Being the person asked to leave a flight would be extremely frustrating when you have somewhere to be, but it’s part of the risk you assume when purchasing a ticket. It’s one we probably don’t like to think about and one we’d all like to have changed, but it’s a common practice shared by the airlines. The problem for United is that it makes us all sympathetic to the passenger, not the airline, when a situation like this arises. We’re predisposed to demonize the airline.

Then, in response to the video of the incident going public, United CEO Oscar Munoz sent a letter to employees supporting the employees involved in the situation. It’s not a bad thing for a CEO to do in a situation like this. In his letter, he confirmed that the employees had followed protocol and that he stood behind their actions. He also stated that this situation was a learning opportunity for everyone at United.

Unfortunately, Munoz also referred to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” That clearly was a mistake. It showed a lack of sensitivity to the situation and a poor reading of where the public’s sympathies would lie. He gave the public another reason to side with the passenger.

Finally, while the crew did follow protocol and called aviation security as the situation escalated, Munoz and United weren’t helped when the police had to resort to physically removing the passenger. It undoubtedly got rough, and the man ended up bloodied by the altercation. I can’t imagine that was anyone’s desire, but it happened. I’m not sure how United gets held responsible for the way aviation security acted, but it did. It wasn’t like this was a private security force of United Airlines.

It’s another tough situation for Munoz. I’m sure he didn’t like the video that resulted from the way the police handled extracting the passenger, but it’s hard to criticize law enforcement that your company is called on to work with closely to keep all air travelers safe. Whether he agreed with the way they handled the situation or not, he chose not to comment and possibly offend law enforcement. The result is that instead of distancing United from the officers’ actions, the lack of comment led most viewing the video to associate the behavior directly with the airline.

My view may not be a popular one, but I think the United crew did what they felt was right and necessary. When a situation got beyond their control, they called in the professionals to help. The results weren’t what anyone would like to see, but the passenger bears some responsibility for that as well. I can’t argue with a CEO who supports his employees when he thinks they did what was right and necessary—especially when they were handling a difficult situation in real time and followed company protocol. And I don’t think Munoz’s description of the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” was inaccurate, but it was insensitive. There was no reason for him to criticize the passenger with whom many people sympathized.

I don’t see that United was wrong in its handling of a really difficult situation, but the airline screwed up royally afterward when it failed to understand the impact the video of the incident would have and failed to respond accordingly. Instead of mitigating the damage, the airline compounded it with a lack of sensitivity to the passenger involved in the incident. It may be a fine line to walk, but Munoz could have supported his people while demonstrating compassion to another human being who had been harmed. He didn’t, and he’s paying the price.

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1 Randy
03:16:33, 18/04/17

The airlines created the situation. Ejecting a paying passenger so an employee can fly, what could go wrong? There is no excuse for their actions, there is no excuse to overbook a flight. The solution is simple, outlaw overbooking. The math is easy, x amount of seats times x amounts of dollars, if x amount of dollars is not enough to be profitable then raise the price of the seats. Or just add another unnecessary “fee”. The industry is out of control and I do not expect politicians to fix it, to good of a source of income for them.

2 Ana
11:25:47, 18/04/17

I completely agree with you, Oswald. Regardless of issue with overbooking, passenger rights, etc etc, when law enforcement showed up, it was time for the passenger to obey their orders. The law enforcement tells you to follow them, you peacefully follow. You fight for your rights later. This passenger got physical with law enforcement. That was wrong (and stupid).

15:42:23, 18/04/17

Although I usually really like your articles and generally agree with your point of view, I have to say that I disagreed with (or perhaps misunderstood?) the central theme of this one. This article seems to be saying that the customer was at fault, the employees did everything they could and the airline’s only mistake was how they handled the subsequent negative publicity. I disagree. I think the negative publicity was a result of the public (myself included) believing that the airline was at fault in creating the situation. If this had been just a misbehaving passenger (think Alec Baldwin and cell phone or even teenagers and leggings), the public would have been much more on the side of the airline and ready to say that the passenger “got what he deserved.” (Even if nobody ever deserves to be assaulted.) But this was a problem of United’s own making; they oversold the flight and didn’t fix it their own problem, which is not an error but an affirmative business decision. They didn’t offer sufficient compensation and they let the customer get all the way onto the plane and into his seat before deciding that they would bump him for an airline employee. In that sense, I also don’t think the restaurant analogy is particularly apt because it wasn’t just that the seat offered wasn’t to the customer’s liking. A truer analogy is that the restaurant owner advertised a steak dinner to be held at a certain date and time and had people sign up and pay in advance and go out of their way to come to his restaurant. When they all arrived for the dinner and the owner knew there were only 50 steaks for 55 people, he nevertheless sat all the customers at their tables and served them their dinners only to yank one away from one customer as he was adjusting his napkin and picking up his fork and tell him “wait, we need to feed our employees first, so we need this steak for them and you must leave my restaurant immediately.” (Is a Seinfeld Soup Nazi reference appropriate here?)

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