Damage to United Airlines's brand will be lasting, irreparable
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Service failures happen; they are a reality of life in the service industry and are not uncommon. As studies in the services marketing literature have long reported, how a service failure is handled can make all the difference.

It is often the company’s response to that failure — and their attempt at recovery — that make the difference between a customer going away delighted, satisfied or irrevocably (and vocally) angry.

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This week, United Airlines failed miserably at the service provision and, though it would not have seemed possible to have made their horrific situation that millions saw and shared on video worse, the response and follow up from their CEO did just that. 

 

The PR fumble that United Airlines made a few weeks ago when they refused to allow two young teenage girls to board because they were wearing leggings received a good bit of attention in the media. It was a black eye to the brand’s image.

Their non-apology consisted of a brief explanation that the girls were attempting to fly on “buddy passes” and, as such, did not meet the required dress code for such a ticket. However, this unapologetic explanation rang hollow to many who had already heard or read about the incident. This PR misstep seems trivial in comparison with the video that was to come.

At the beginning of this week, United Airlines made international news by forcibly removing an elderly passenger who refused to deplane and give up his seat for airline employees. It took very little time for the dramatic video to go viral, garnering millions of views and sparking international outrage. 

In the days since the incident, reporting on the aftermath has been constant. Following another somewhat defiant pair of non-apologies from United CEO Oscar Munoz and a release of a stipulation in United’s rules stating that they reserve the right to refuse travel to any passenger, United’s stock price dropped by half a billion dollars (although it did “recover” somewhat to a loss of roughly $250 million).

The incident and its aftermath have been hailed by many in the communications industry as one of the biggest PR blunders in history. Even the United Airlines pilots have released a public statement clarifying that they were not operating the flight in question; it was being operated by an affiliated airline, Republic Airlines. Two actual apologies from Munoz followed his non-apologies but seemed to be far too little and much too late.

United Airlines learned a tough lesson in recent weeks: Just because you have the right, does not make it right. In an industry that offers a service that is as much of a commodity as travel — getting folks from one place to another — one of the major distinctions that people make in addition to fares, routes and schedule is customer service.

In such a service industry, the way one is treated — from the ticket agents to the gate agents, to flight attendants to baggage handlers — can make or break a passenger’s experience and how the airline is received in the marketplace. The lasting effects of this incident on the United brand will likely be irreparable.

Any United ad in the near future touting the “friendly skies” or any claims of treating customers well will be viewed through the prism of this incident and seem absurd and even infuriating.

The stock price is a short-term effect. Decades of brand building has been un-done and United’s lasting brand image will be overshadowed by the images of a bloodied David Dao and his screams of fear and pain, which will live for years to come on YouTube.

 

Marlene Towns is an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.