United

By Ruth Atherley

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.

The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.

Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.

BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).

There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.

At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.

From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”

What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.

A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.

The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.

Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.

I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.

And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.

United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.

I saw an interesting blog post on Facebook the other day that told a very different story about Alaska Airlines and how they handled a delay situation. It’s worth a read – maybe someone should e-mail the link to Munoz.

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#UnitedSUCKSIn my last post, we were just about to board our flight from San Juan to Houston to connect to Vancouver. In writing this installment, I realized it was going to take three blog posts to cover it all. This story of poor service has too many elements and I don’t want to jam them all in and overwhelm you.

As we waited to board the plane, the United representative at the gate announced that the flight was overbooked and they were offering $300 per person for someone to take a later flight. I thought that was interesting because the United flights we took to get to San Juan had been oversold too and they were trying to get people to take an offer and switch to a later flight.

We were happy to get on the plane and be heading home. The disorganized, ineffective manner in which United handled passengers at the San Juan airport had sucked the energy out of most of us. No one was happy and people were frustrated, hungry and they just wanted to get to their seats.

The flight was reasonably uneventful. I worked, read a bit, and kept checking the map on the screen to see how close we were… Then the pilot announced that the Houston Airport had quite a bit of air traffic due to rain and we would be in a holding pattern for 12 minutes. No problem, I thought – we have an hour and a half and our next flight was at a gate that was close to our landing gate.

Then, 15 minutes into our holding pattern, he announced that we needed to continue holding for a few more minutes…

Then, 10 minutes later, the pilot said that we were diverting to a nearby military base. Hmmm. Now I am sure he must have said to refuel, however – almost no one heard that part – everyone in the seats around me started asking questions and worrying – Why was this happening? Is there some kind of security risk? What is going on? Why are we landing there – will they bus us to Houston? Will I miss my connecting flight? It was all quite concerning. Yet no one addressed the clearly worried and upset passengers or clarified anything.

Upon landing, the pilot announced that we would simply refuel as quickly as possible and fly back to Houston. Why did we run out of fuel in a holding pattern for 25 minutes?

The time started to creep closer and closer to our connection flight’s boarding time and we began to worry. I asked a flight attendant, who was passing by my seat, about this and she said: “I don’t know – you will need to speak to someone when we land.” Really? On West Jet and Air Canada flights, when it seems passengers might miss their flights – the flight attendants are on it and even if they don’t have the answer, they communicate on a regular basis so people know they are doing their best. We received no information from the crew – and many of the passengers on this flight were worried about missing their connections, as Houston is a hub for United.

While we were refueling, the pilot announced that he had turned the Pay TV on for the passengers – as a gift from him for all of the delays. And I thought – that is a nice gesture. For the 45 minutes while we were on the ground, we had access to movies and TV shows at no charge. As soon as the plane hit the runway and went back into the sky, the free TV was cut off. Really? We spent another 30 minutes in the air – getting back to Houston International and circling the airport again. I think they could have left the TV on until we landed in Houston. Don’t you?

When we landed, trying to get off the plane was chaos. Unfortunately, some of the passengers either forgot or had no manners and were trying to push their way off the plane so they didn’t miss their flights.

Once off, we stood in a line at the desk at the gate – about an hour – to have the person there tell us she could get one of us out of Houston the next morning at 6 a.m. and one of us could go to San Francisco that evening and go to Vancouver from there late the next day. As United was claiming that we missed our connection due to “weather” and not due to “refueling” and that they were not going to pay for a hotel, we didn’t see the point in getting one room in Houston and one in San Francisco.

I could clearly tell that we were frustrating the woman behind the counter by asking her about better options. She sighed quite a bit and she rolled her eyes twice at my questions. Her voice held no helpful tone – it was sharp with the sound of frustration – directed at us because we had the gall to miss our flight. Let me explain here – we are polite and courteous… even for Canadians. We say please and thank you a lot. We say – would you mind checking to see if this is possible… we keep our voices calm and respectful. We knew she was having a tough day too and did our best to be sympathetic to her situation. However, that didn’t go both ways. There was absolutely no need for us to be treated like were a pain in her butt.

Finally, she said she could get us on a flight that night to Chicago and another flight the next day to Vancouver that would get us in later in the evening. That wasn’t great either. I asked her if there were any flights to Seattle (you know – that major U.S. city just south of Vancouver) and she looked at me like I had three heads… I admit I am making an assumption here, but I don’t think she actually knew where Vancouver was … She looked up Seattle and said she could get us on a flight there the next morning at 10 a.m. and then from Seattle to Vancouver later that afternoon. We would arrive in Vancouver at 5 p.m. We’d miss a day’s work, have to pay our dog sitter for another day, have to get a hotel room, and pay for all the meals. Thinking that this was our only option, we said yes.

In our next installment, I will tell you about the United pilot who thinks he’s funny, the $40 bottle of salsa and how the TSA provided the best customer service of this whole trip.

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I travel quite a bit for business and pleasure, and I have to say my most recent travel on United Airlines (from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver) was the worst experience I have ever had on an airline. #UnitedSUCKS (the trending hashtag) should be painted on their airplanes…

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There is a good customer dissatisfaction video on YouTube about a band member that had his guitar damaged when flying United Airlines. According to the video, there were witnesses to baggage handlers throwing the guitar and taking absolutely no care with it. Currently, there are only a few hundred views of this video, but many, many comments – most of them saying they are appalled at how United has handled this issue.

Apart from being an interesting (and entertaining) video made by a dissatisfied customer, this also brings up something that we have recently been discussing here at AHA Creative Strategies: social media measurement – in all its forms. We provide evaluation on projects, media coverage and other initiatives to quite a few clients and the accuracy and credibility of that evaluation is very important to us. Social media is a challenge because the natural reaction is to use traditional evaluation methods, and that’s a little like comparing apples to oranges.

I had this discussion with my friend and colleague Stephen Hodgdon of Beaupre and I thought his response—while specifically about blogs—was worth repeating and could be applied to many forms of social media. He said: “Blog traffic has a number of advantages over traditional media reader metrics, including that it tends to drive more customers directly to your business website, enables you to engage with your customers directly, and increases your search engine visibility, to name a few.”

In the case of the United Breaks Guitars video, it is interesting to note that there are companies that specialize in the transportation of band gear (full disclosure, one of the top companies out of the U.S. that does this is an AHA client.). Think about the gear of big name acts like The Rolling Stones, Britney Spears, U2, Matchbox 20, Kelly Clarkson and Nickleback and the hundreds of other acts flying around. (These acts aren’t necessarily connected to our client). They tour globally and for the most part – they take a lot of their gear with them. The shipment of guitars and drums and other instruments and equipment needed to put on a world-class show can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per band. So, not only has United put off this one particular customer, who happens to be in what appears to be a smaller band, it may also be showing other much larger clients that United can’t be trusted with this kind of cargo. What do you think would happen if someone had to explain to Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi that their favourite guitar was damaged in transit? That wouldn’t be good for anyone.

So, from this video – not only do I now believe that as a single passenger, United Airlines will do nothing to help me, I have also sent it to my client, who runs a company that promises that a band’s gear will get to the next city on time and in one piece.

In this day and age, it’s not how many people hear the good or bad about your organization, it’s who hears about it and what that means to you.

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