United can stop the bleeding, but it has to act fast
© Getty

Earlier this week, a video was released showing law enforcement (now infamously) removing a man from a United Airlines flight at the request of airline staff who, at the last minute, needed to free up four seats for crewmembers. Anyone familiar with the scene knows of the aftermath; a bloodied passenger being dragged off the plane as other concerned customers looked on. At best, industry professionals have called it a severe lapse in judgment on United’s part. Shock and anger seem to be the more popular sentiments among the general public.

The last thing most people see is an opportunity for United.

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But that’s exactly what this is. Today’s fiasco can be tomorrow’s positive change. It starts with listening to customers. Should United choose to do so, it can create a dialogue with the public that could not only begin the process of repairing its damaged reputation but also could forge a brand stronger than it had been previously. The first step is providing a real and direct apology to the passenger involved, but it continues with progression.

 

The airline industry is among the lowest rated in terms of customer satisfaction, with a rating of 72/100 according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. United Airlines itself scored even lower. This is indicative of a larger, industry-wide issue in which consumers feel victimized; they distrust the very airlines they fly. Much of this can be attributed to airline-backed policies and government regulations that have, for decades, negatively affected consumers. Everything from baggage fees, complex contracts of carriage, and overbooking procedures and policies are just some of the culprits.

Right now, U.S. law allows airlines to offer up to $1,350 in compensation due to an overbooked flight. United can take a stand to increase that threshold and potentially offer additional compensation while laying out a much more consumer-friendly policy because it’s clear: With the right incentives and procedures in place, there will never be a need to force a passenger off of a plane in this type of situation. There will always be a volunteer. That’s what the public is saying. United would be wise to listen. If it had cost United $10,000 to get a passenger to voluntarily step off that flight, it would have been $10,000 expertly spent.

Over the last 48 hours, the company has taken a huge hit — not only in reputation but also financially. The #BoycottUnited campaign is in full swing, and United Airlines’ market cap fell $255 million following the event. Whether the worst is over is hard to say, but even if this is rock bottom, United has a difficult set of challenges to overcome to regain the trust and support of its customers. The longer they wait to listen and engage with their customers and the general public, the harder that climb becomes.

My sense is that United’s management and advisers will successfully navigate through this issue. By actively listening to the public and pushing for clearer, consumer-focused policies, United will find it possible, albeit difficult, to stop the bleeding and show that they care about their customers in the long run. And herein lies the opportunity. Long-term support, improved reputation, and stronger brand allegiance can be earned now, when consumers are waiting for the company’s next move.

But if consumer voices continue to fall on deaf ears, United Airlines will have built a reputation of the worst kind, and it’s not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

Don Ross is president of the Americas at Trustpilot, an online review community with nearly 30 million reviews of 160,000 businesses across the globe.


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