The crisis of conscience

by Elisabeth Field

11th April 2017

One of the best customer service experiences I have ever had was in January 2000, as I flew to San Francisco from Auckland. The United Airlines cabin crew were fabulous. Warm, friendly, welcoming. Even at the back of the plane. They spotted that we were a newly married couple and, before we had reached 30,000 ft, we had a bottle of Champagne to ourselves and a bunch of tasty chocolates and treats.

I spent much of that flight quaffing the bubbles, gorging on chocolates, watching films and thumbing through the massive stack of glossy magazines I had hauled on board with me. It was a great flight. Lots of chat with the crew and tips on surviving a happy marriage (didn’t work, but thanks anyway). We were delivered to San Fran full of the joys of life.

Fast forward 17 years to this weekend. Life has changed. A lot. Not least because the glossies have been expunged from my reading pile and I’m now thumbing the FT Weekend. I land on an interview with Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Continental. Reporter Robert Wright talked Munoz through his recent tenure, including his recent health scare which had him away from the business for five months. It was a balanced piece, recognising the difficulties the business had endured, the domestic market in which it is heavily competing, and the ongoing staff contract issues.

Customer service was an issue he was ‘grappling with’: the somewhat narrow reporting of the recent leggings fiasco not helping matters. But the tone was one of a turnaround, of a business slowly finding its way through a quagmire of legacy issues. Fighting stagnation in an industry of constant change; striving to be better.

Never before has a closing line of an interview been more prescient. Quoting aviation analyst, Andrew Charlton, “their customer service has a terrible reputation, and much to have a terrible reputation about”.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

You couldn’t make up what happened the following day. It’s the stuff of poorly-plotted action films. An overbooked flight – standard airline operating procedure in these days of missed connections – meant the crew of UA 3411 needed to offload four passengers. Common practice.

What wasn’t common, or practised, was the way in which that crew went about offloading passengers. After requests for enough volunteers were fruitless, they resorted to brute force on one passenger who was removed from the flight. Actually, removed isn’t quite the right word. Grabbed, hauled, dragged. This man was heaved out of his window seat and pulled along the floor by his arms; his feet and body scraping along the narrow aisle.

He was knocked around, clothing ripped, left bleeding and utterly gobsmacked by proceedings. As were the other passengers on board. As was the rest of the world when social media did its thing.

Twitter went berserk. The media world has had easy copy, lots of eyewitness reports and countless videos to post.

United might have minimised the impact had it acted appropriately and immediately. Instead, it stated the incident was “an upsetting event to all of us here at United”.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Poor United Airlines. How distressing for them.

What should the airline have done? Get some advice, for one thing. Don’t leave it to lawyers to sanction language when dealing with a global emotional reaction to your business’s actions.

First up, apologise. Then demonstrate you understand how distressing it was for everyone and empathise with those affected (not just your staff). Bring some objectivity to play: rationalise the next steps and explain what’s going to be done to fix the problem. Finally, personalise the response. Stand up and be counted. Take it on the chin and – cliché of all clichés – lead from the front.

“We deeply regret the actions on board flight UA 3411 yesterday and wish to apologise unreservedly to the affected passengers (apologise). It is not the standard we hold ourselves to, not how we want or expect our staff to behave, and not the way we wish to treat our customers who clearly found it distressing (empathise). We have launched an investigation to better understand what took place and how we can ensure we never treat our valued customers in that manner ever again (rationalise). I will personally lead this investigation and will be speaking with those affected passengers and the staff involved (personalise).”

But, and here’s the tricky bit. Legally, if the captain declares a passenger must leave the plane, then they must. It’s the law. Herein lies the standoff. Passenger is asked to leave. Passenger refuses. What should the airline do? It has a planeload of people who want to get to Louisville. It’s already late. It’s going to get fined. It needs to get the plane in the air so the rest of its schedule remains on track.

The passenger may have been ‘difficult and belligerent” as Munoz said. But none of that matters when millions of people around the world are watching a customer being manhandled down the jetway. Pictures and video instantly tell a story that legalities and airline operating procedure simply can’t. Showing him, blood dripping down his face – clearly in shock – mumbling and repeating his desire ‘to go home’.

And the longer the story is kept alive through sharing on social channels, the more details come out. That United was trying to make room for crew, not other paying passengers. That the whole plane was forced to disembark so the blood could be cleaned up. That offloading of overbooked passengers is supposed to happen at the gate, anyway, not on board.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

United Airlines used to be a brand and business that was respected and valued because of the service it provided. It looked after people. It showed them the world.

Now, it’s a new world they’re showing us and it’s not one we like.

Perhaps it could learn a thing or two from Pepsi. (There’s a sentence I thought I’d never write again.)

Look how Pepsi responded to its recent advertising disaster. It apologised. The company put up its metaphorical hands and said: ‘we got it wrong’. It acted quickly, pulled the advert and ate a major slice of humble pie.

What now, United?