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'Not enough seating, prepare for a beating'

When you bloody a customer, an apology is (literally) the least you can do
United airlines passenger removed from flight
Screengrab from a video of the bloodied passenger who was forcibly removed from a United flight.

By Todd Humber

United Airlines has a PR disaster on its hands. From an HR perspective, the response from management is worth examining – and there’s no way to sugarcoat it: It’s not pretty.

A lot has already been written about the unbelievable incident that saw a passenger being physically assaulted and dragged off a plane in Chicago. The passenger’s only crime was refusing to give up his seat. A seat he had paid for, and was already sitting in mind you, to allow a group of United employees to bump him and travel to Kentucky to ensure a different flight the next day wouldn’t be cancelled.

It’s a PR disaster because airlines are already on thin ice thanks to the adoption of the very frustrating and extremely annoying policy of overbooking flights. Call it efficiency, call it greed, but airlines simply don’t like empty seats. And the general public – and let’s keep in mind these folks are paying customers – are fed up with it.

Getting bumped at the gate is annoying enough. But once you’re seated on the plane, you feel pretty confident you’re going to make it to your destination. That complacency is misplaced, apparently.

I won’t begin to put myself in this man’s shoes, but anyone who has travelled has likely had an experience with overbooking and bumping. According to U.S. statistics, it happened 434,000 times in 2016. Last year, I booked a flight on Air Canada from Toronto to Los Angeles to attend a health and safety conference – months in advance. Despite showing up hours early for my flight, I was told I may not have a seat. I got on at the last minute only after a couple of travelers volunteered to give up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers.

It was frustrating that despite months of planning I was on the verge of missing a flight, and having to cancel countless pre-arranged meetings, because of a greedy airline policy. Passengers can be a little understanding of things beyond the airline’s control — like weather. But overbooking and bumping? That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.

The bloodied and battered man – and keep in mind we’re talking literally here – had enough. He wasn’t getting off the plane. He didn’t want whatever compensation was being offered, he wanted to get to his destination, travelling in the seat he paid for. The airline responded by calling in security, who assaulted him and dragged him off the plane to the horror of fellow passengers.

But let’s get back to management’s response. Under the category of you can’t make this stuff up, the CEO of United Airlines – Oscar Munoz — was named U.S. Communicator of the Year just last month by PRWeek magazine. They may want to rethink their criteria.

Munoz quickly apologized. That won’t surprise you. But what will is that he didn’t apologize for the assault. No, instead he apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers. Look it up in the dictionary, if you must. But accommodation never involves drawing blood.

In a letter to employees, he put the onus on the passenger – calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Keep in mind we’re not talking about some drunk and unruly passenger who was causing problems. We’re talking about a customer, who paid for his seat, and was quietly minding his own business. A fellow passenger described him as a “sweet” man. He only became belligerent when he was told he was being removed from the plane involuntarily.  

Munoz also said employees simply “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

Well, Mr. Munoz. If that’s established policy, then your policy sucks. It should be changed, not defended. The apology should be unreserved, not couched in PR talk about “re-accommodation.”

United is taking a beating on social media. The top trending topic on Twitter this week was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos. One suggestion was “Not enough seating, prepare for a beating.” Another featured a meme showing the airline’s new cabin class, which was labeled “Fight Club.”

And here’s an item to catch the C-suite’s attention: The share price plunged 3.7 per cent in early trading on Tuesday. That’s $830 million US in company value wiped out, and experts are pointing to the fallout of this incident as the culprit.

Time and again we see examples of corporate missteps. In many cases, the initial reaction is to defend actions and hide behind policies often for fear of a lawsuit. Well, United, you bloodied a customer. There is no defending that – a clear apology is square one. A promise it won’t happen again, with a roadmap for getting out of this quagmire of bumping and overbookings, is a good follow up.

Spokespeople of the world, take note of this case. Learn from it. When you make a mistake, apologize immediately and sincerely. Steer clear of the pandering “sorry if we offended anyone” notes. Munoz needs to say, clearly, we made a big mistake. Odds are he will, eventually, but the damage has already left the gate. 

Update

Sure enough, Munoz did offer a more appropriate apology on Tuesday afternoon. Here is the full text of his statement:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It's never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We'll communicate the results of our review by April 30.

I promise you we will do better.

Sincerely,

Oscar

The video is below.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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