Sometimes Friendliness Prior to Flight Is Not Included
“Fly the Friendly Skies.” That’s United Airlines’ famous slogan. Sounds nice, right? Flying with United is a tough sell today given their latest debacle. Yesterday evening, a controversial video surfaced, throwing United Airlines into its second public relations nightmare in just one month.
We often talk about brand experience at Javelina, because it’s critical to the success of any organization. Brands aren’t just built on catchy phrases, logos, and color schemes – the strongest brands are built on a quality service or product, which complements the customer’s experience. With the way United Airlines first handled the “Great Leggings Incident of 2017” and now how their current fiasco is shaping up – this company has a serious customer service problem that is only going to continue to damage their brand. Straighten up and fly right, United.
Here’s the back story: Yesterday, United Airlines was in need of four seats for their staff members to board an overbooked flight. (This is a common – and legal – occurrence.) The airline asked for volunteer passengers to exit the plane, offering generous compensation and a hotel stay for those who offered to leave. No one budged. So, United Airline’s brilliant solution was to randomly select passengers to be forcibly removed from the flight. One not-so-lucky gentleman chosen was a 69-year-old doctor who refused to leave the plane, stating he had patients to see in the morning.
As shown in a video posted online last night, police violently removed the man from his airline seat. His head struck an armrest, and he immediately goes limp while being dragged by his arms through the aisle. Other videos show his face bloodied after the incident. Not only was this an incredible disservice and extreme violation to the man the police had harmed, but the whole ordeal was traumatic to the passengers as well.
This terrible incident stresses the importance of crisis management training and how that reflects a company’s culture. Every person in every company messes up at some point. Sometimes the mistake is huge and needs more crisis management, while other times the mistake is minimal and can go under the radar. Either way, how companies respond to any crisis is very telling about who they are. No company can control every single incident (in this case, it was absolutely avoidable – they could have simply offered better compensation until people volunteered to leave), but the way they react to a crisis is the key moment we as customers get to see what their real values are.
However, United Airlines hasn’t been doing such a great job of flying – or handling – their public relations issues lately.
In response to the incident, one United Airlines spokesman said: “We are focused on our customers, on getting them to their destination on time”. Yeah, and they will apparently assault their customers to do it. Here’s a golden statement by United CEO Oscar Munoz in response to one of his customers being dragged off a plane:
“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 of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Doesn’t sound like much of an apology. “Re-accommodate” is a really strange euphemism for forcibly removing and injuring a customer on one of your airplanes.
What’s the proper response from a company who genuinely cares about its customers and their services? Unequivocally denounce the way this doctor was treated, and acknowledge there were better courses of action to take. But, time and again, United seems intent on keeping its pride intact rather than putting their customers first.
When refusing two teenage girls from boarding their flight because of leggings, United Airlines once again stood by their right to continually lower the bar of good judgment by proudly waving around their rule book. That went over about as well as you’d expect it to.
In any industry, no matter who you are, a little humility goes a long way and it speaks volumes about your brand, even in the most dire of circumstances.
For instance, JetBlue had a massive service crisis in 2007. Their current CEO took full responsibility, publicly expressing his deep humiliation. He was committed to compensating his customers, addressing their problems, and working hard to regain their trust. Although he stepped aside as CEO a few months after, JetBlue won an overall satisfaction award from J.D. Power that same year and earned back the confidence of its customers. Trust takes a lifetime to build and a moment to destroy. A good company will always keep that trust at the forefront of their brand.
United Airlines, on the other hand, seems intent on digging themselves into a hole and sitting in it. Your place is in the sky, not the ground.
While United had the legal right to remove their passengers, that decision doesn’t make it the best course of action. Forcibly removing their passengers certainly doesn’t reflect a commitment to quality service and instead shines a negative light on their values.
Flying the skies don’t seem friendly in the world of United Airlines right now. Time will tell how they respond in the coming days, but they seem to have an unwillingness to be humble. But hey, maybe that’s just their brand.