United’s PR Flap

Having flown nearly 2.4 million miles on United (and Continental, pre-merger) Airlines, having probably lost likely one full weekend per year due to delays and operational problems, and being remarkably vocal about what I see as United’s operational woes, I seem to be tagged left and right in reposts of coverage of the recent forced removal of a passenger from a United flight.

I have three thoughts on the matter (since a number of people have asked): United was within its rights as a carrier, but barely; United created this issue for themselves due to lack of operational excellence; United poured gasoline on the dumpster fire by once again handling a customer relations issue without the simplest of apologies (even if they believed they were in the right).

United and all other airlines routinely overbook flights. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the maximum revenue per flight (or accommodate all passengers) when people fail to show up, change plans, or get delayed on their inbound connections. While it’s a huge pain to those on the flight when this happens, it also means that there are seats when you have to make last minute travel plans. What is borderline about this case is that it wasn’t caused by an overbooking but rather by United’s need to move four flight crew to Louisville. United needed the seats, they weren’t sold as extra capacity in advance. United then followed procedure – they asked for volunteers, and when they had no volunteers, they selected based on an algorithm that rewards fare paid, loyalty and disabled or minor passengers. Had they decided to skip the chosen passenger, and pick the next one, they set themselves up for cascading chorus of “I’m important, pick the next guy”. And not to truly pile on, but if you have something time critical, do not depend on the airlines to get you there just in time when you’re flying through a busy hub known for weather and operational delays. Just as doctors sometimes slip their schedule due to emergencies, airlines do the same. There: I defended United. On the other hand, I’m not defending the manner in which the passenger was forcibly removed from the plane — but that’s on the policing force, not on United. I know, shocking for me to admit that an action with bad optics performed by United Airlines was within guidelines, but from my perspective, it was.

Here’s where it goes south: United created this problem for themselves. If you have to move four crew members to the next destination, and your flight is oversold, book them on another carrier. Charter a flight for them. Put them on a helicopter. Clearly, the backsplash from this incident is costing them more than the $50,000 it would have cost to do this in an egregiously expensive but less customer impactful way. This is where United continues to fail its customers – they seem to operate with the thinnest margins of slack in the system, whether it’s maintenance windows or crew arrival or gate availability. My BOS-EWR flight on Thursday was delayed 5 1/4 hours by weather — yes, there was bad weather — but the operational information on the United website was useless — it had incorrect inbound flight information (so there was no way to gauge or plan alternatives), and the sequencing of inbound to EWR and inbound to BOS flights was laughably implausible for hours. In the 18 months, I’ve had more than five flights held for a variety of mechanical problems, or flights held because crew was on an inbound and there were simply no options. I had believed one of the tenets of the hub and spoke model was to make it easier to substitute crew, equipment, and services as needed, but it seems that United is gaining no operational efficiencies at all, and perhaps suffering from needing to get crew to and from hub cities (EWR and ORD being among the worst).

And here’s why United continues to be the public relations pinata they so richly deserve to be: They routinely fail to apologize to the customer. This is true in every interaction I’ve had with United over the last ten years. They never admit that they created a bad customer experience (whether their fault or not, it’s the customer experience that matters). Admit that this could have been handled better. Admit you caused no end of public humiliation and personal aggravation. When my BOS-EWR flight was delayed and I began chirping @United via Twitter, I got back a series of “Tell us what flight” and explanations of their plane logistics, rather than (John Mullaney voice here) “We are sorry! We just destroyed your evening and the first day of your vacation, here is a $100 travel voucher or 25,000 miles for your troubles”. JetBlue does this — I flew on JetBlue right after Christmas, had a TWO HOUR delay, and was given 10% of my ticket price as travel voucher, without me asking, purely because they saw and admitted the problem (which was weather, not their doing). That’s customer sensitivity and customer service.

Until United starts to demonstrate an understanding of the total end to end customer experience of their airline, each and every incident (whether the leggings issue, or an involuntary bump, or just a hideous in flight experience) will get amplified and echoed through social media, because United offers no other signal to combat the negative noise.

CEO Oscar Munoz posted a public promise to focus on these things just a short time ago: Let’s see some transparency and accountability, and maybe the friendly skies will start to feel that way again.

2 thoughts on “United’s PR Flap

  1. Jonathan

    100%. Jaime and I were just talking about this. United has built no fandom, so there was no one to defend them in the public when this happened.

    Every time I fly United, I expect a crappy experience. So if someone gets beaten and dragged off of a United plane in order to move crew members, I don’t doubt it for a second.

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  2. Barton

    Thanks Hal. I’m an AA loyalist after a few years as UAL 1K. They’re far from perfect, but in my 15+ years @ 2.6M miles, they are more like Jet Blue and less like United. The constant between all of the mega airlines is that the top leadership simply has no idea of what it’s like to fly anywhere other than the pointy end. Starting today, UAL (and other mega airlines), should mandate that their top leadership fly no less than 51% of all their business miles in the worst seats the airline has to offer. Middle seat, forward of the exit row, non reclining or last row of the plane, lavatory side. Wherever possible, they should be seated near families with young children or next to an active member of the US miltary who does more miles in a C130 than the exec ever will in an A380. Until the top leadership fully experiences the full misery they have created for their customers, little if anything will actually change.

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