United Airlines’ most recent public relations misstep is only one example of the major errors U.S. airlines have made in the treatment of customers over the past decade or more.
For United (and other airlines) to use an algorithm to choose and eject overbooked passengers to make space for airline employees, and to then forcibly remove a man reluctant to leave when chosen, is more than a mistake. It is a sign of an industry gone wrong.
From a public relations standpoint, it is a "worst practice" for United CEO Oscar Munoz to issue a statement saying, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review…”
He’s upset? Passengers were re-accommodated? A detailed review? It’s all there in the video. No review is necessary, unless as it concerns disciplinary action for involved employees. The word re-accommodated implies there was an accommodation in the first place. There was not.
Rather, the passenger was refused the service for which he paid a substantial fee — and he was assaulted in the process. Finally, Munoz should never have made it about himself, his airline or its employees. The victims were the ejected passenger and his fellow travelers.
Munoz and his team would have been much better advised to issue an all-out apology to the removed passenger and the rest of those delayed by the incident. The public, many of whom have or will fly United at some point, should have been likewise assuaged.
The adage that the “customer is always right” is more than a cliché. The phrase should be the ruling dictum in a service industry with one mission — to successfully transport passengers from one place to another. Any time an airline diverges from that goal, it is failing, whether the cause be a storm, mechanical difficulties or a sick passenger.
When errors are made, apologies and genuine accommodations — free tickets, meals, hotel stays, cash — should be offered to those inconvenienced. When incidents become public — as so many do via social media — an immediate, conciliatory response is required, one that includes an announcement of the aforementioned offerings and a promise that changes will be made for future flights.
The airlines, including United, should begin changing their policies so flights are no longer overbooked, even if it costs them financially. The first airline to make the announcement to end that practice will earn a good deal of public trust and will make the loss up in increased revenue. Similarly, the idea of asking passengers to leave a plane should be summarily ended, unless they are well compensated for the concession.
United and others should also announce new training programs for employees who will be required to meet certain customer service expectations, not the least of which should be to never drag a passenger from an airplane unless that person presents a danger to him/herself or others.
If I were advising United, I would go further to suggest it reintroduce former perks like snacks and meals and to stop charging for additional luggage. These newer policies have added to the distaste flyers have for today’s airlines and only compound negative attitudes when incidents occur.
And, to state the obvious, when a video has been viewed by millions upon millions of people displaying an obvious mistake by an airline’s employees, the CEO should offer only heartfelt apologies via the media and to the Twitter-verse. (United alone has 903,000 Twitter followers; imagine the audience for this video.)
True, there may be more to this particular story. It is now being reported that the removed passenger on United Flight 3411, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky, may have a history with law enforcement. But, that does not matter in a situation like this one.
The impression that people will recall is that of a callous airline with little regard for its customers in an industry that has become the bane of those who take to the airways throughout the world. United will surely recognize the cost of its most recent mistakes. They could have been easily avoided with a sound and genuine public relations plan.
Debra Caruso Marrone has owned the New York City-based media relations firm, DJC Communications, for the past 27 years. She has directed campaigns for corporate entities, large non-profit organizations, unions, trade organizations and leading universities. She is a member of the board of directors of the New York Press Club.
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