This week we take a second look at United Airlines flight incident from a managerial perspective.
A passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight two weekends ago - on Sunday, April 9, was forcibly removed and dragged off the plane, another passenger recorded the incident and posted the video on social media.
United Airlines' CEO gave employees details of events leading up to a man being forcibly removed from a flight by law enforcement in Chicago and said that although established procedures were followed, "there are lessons we can learn from this experience."
CEO Oscar Munoz shared information about the incident, captured on video by other passengers. "Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night" aboard a plane about to take off Sunday from Chicago to Louisville, Munoz wrote. He said he wanted to give employees "a clearer picture of what happened."
The series of events began after the plane was fully boarded and United gate agents were approached by airline crew members who said they needed to travel on that flight, Munoz said in the memo. "We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of the boarding process," including offering compensation to anyone who would voluntarily give up their seat, the CEO wrote. "When we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions," Munoz wrote.
"He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent," the memo continued. "Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight." The officers "were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist," the CEO said.
Munoz said employees "followed established procedures" for such situations. Still, he said, "We are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are."
Following the incident, one of the law enforcement officers involved was placed on leave Monday. The Chicago Department of Aviation said the officer's actions were not in accordance with the standard operating procedure and are not condoned by the department.
United said it had offered passengers on the plane up to $800 to give up their seats for four crew members who needed to board. No one volunteered, so the airline generated a list of four names to be removed from the flight and re-accommodated, per by the airline's contract of carriage. Three of those people complied, and one did not. That's when the police were called.
The man refused to volunteer because he is a doctor and needed to work at the hospital the next day. A couple airport security men forcefully pulled the doctor out of his chair and to the floor of the aisle. In so doing, the doctor's face was slammed against an arm rest, causing serious bleeding from his mouth. It looked like he was knocked out because he went limp and quiet and they dragged him out of the plane like a rag doll one Twitter user wrote this who was also one of the passengers.
As expressed by Mohamed El-Erian one of the major reasons for this discrepancy is that customers with different levels of information have different expectations about what "normal" looks like. And that is something that companies like United should reflect much better in their contingency planning.
In the critical minutes of crisis management following the highly unfortunate incident, United failed miserably in explaining the context for its decisions. It initially said the flight had been overbooked, though it later issued a "clarification" to say that it had been sold out, USA Today reported. The airline then decided that four passengers had to be removed to make space for crewmembers, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin tells Today in the Sky.
United's first set of communications was not just poor and badly structured. It was also overly ambitious in trying to differentiate between different stakeholders operating on an information playing field that was far from level. With its dismal failure to get the facts out quickly, United actually fueled rather than defused the spread of outrage.
Rather than stumble through the difficult exercise of reconciling multiple constituencies using different messages, United should have initially focused on their most important ones -- their customers. The company could (and should have) expressed upfront genuine remorse for a customer who -- remember -- sadly ended up in the hospital, rather than calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Moreover, in this day of rapid video dissemination, it took the airline way too long to counter the awful images of the incident with its own video of genuine apology and proper explanation.
Then there was the biggest failure of all: United should have dealt with the sold out the situation before starting the boarding process. Did they not know about their personnel requirements at that time?
Denying someone a seat on a plane is bad enough; doing so when the person is already sitting in it is a disaster to be avoided at all cost. If anything, it doesn’t provide the airline with much of an opportunity to explain to passengers why they were selected. Indeed, the most important takeaway from any crisis-management discussion is the need to strengthen crisis prevention!
What may be the most relevant lesson for the business community as a whole in Ghana and for that matter West Africa, it seems that United’s management had not spent enough time and energy on effective scenario planning. Apparently, there was an insufficient focus on the “what ifs,” both internally generated (as was the case here) and in response to fake news.
Lacking a clearly anchored tone and a well-established approach, their crisis-management effort came across as unprofessional, disjointed, and -- especially -- lacking in strategic underpinnings. This is a particularly large slippage at a time when companies have to live with a lot more “unusual uncertainty,” seeing any mishap easily amplified by social media. And it happened in a world in which companies already have to deal with a much longer list of improbables becoming reality.
While this awful incident is unlikely to change United’s business outlook in a material way over the long-term, it carries important lessons. The faster they are absorbed by the business community as a whole, the better it is for customers, too.
The incident teaches a lesson in brand loyalty. Customer care is critical for any business, and according to Wong, the focus should be on creating unique experiences for customers for the long-term. Passengers have choices of airlines, and with such competition, passengers usually go with the lowest priced tickets. “Why would there be some passengers who are willing to pay a higher price for a ticket? It has a lot to do with brand loyalty,” said Wong. With the recent United Airlines incident, many people will be carefully making choices when it comes to flying. Entrepreneurs should be mindful of brand loyalty and go the distance to defend it.
Wong points out that businesses can be fragile. Within 24 hours of the incident, social media had delivered the video to millions of people around the world. “One bad move in my businesses could be widely reported on social media by someone I don’t even know,” said Wong. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to accept reviews and feedback on social media so that they can make changes as needed. Entrepreneurs should remain humble and listen to suggestions, doing whatever they can to make experiences better for their customers.
Finally, Wong advises business owners to think carefully before taking action. “My coach, Blair Singer, Rich Dad Adviser for Robert Kiyosaki, taught me that when emotions are high, our intelligence is low,” said Wong. In United Airlines, CEO Oscar Munoz’ first statement, he apologized for the need to re-accommodate passengers; in the second, he defended the actions of his employees. “Personally, I lose faith after the second statement,” said Wong.
Wong says that business owners should learn from their mistakes and apply those lessons going forward