In the end, the price for United Airlines of losing its reputation came down to the cost of four seats on a flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY – a round trip that usually costs less than $400 in coach.
As you’ve probably already seen, as it’s all over the news and social media, the airline “solved” an overbooking problem by forcibly dragging a passenger out of their seat. It was the police who did the dirty work – filmed by horrified passengers.
Even before the plane had departed, video of the incident was on Twitter.
And here’s how United initially responded.
Just when you’d think it couldn’t get any worse for United, it did: Turns out that they were “re-accommodating customers” to make way for their own staff, who “needed” to be back in Louisville. Apparently, passengers were offered a hotel stay and compensation ranging from $400-800 to give up their valuable seats, in accordance with Department of Transportation rules.
Today, United offered an official apology. The magnitude of the situation is clearly sinking in, since the quote is attributed to CEO Oscar Munoz. You can imagine the levels of approval needed to a) confirm that quote and b) call up the CEO on a Sunday to explain the whole thing, while your brand is taking an absolute pounding on social media. No doubt United would have liked to move faster, but CEO-level approvals take time.
The damage is done. However, United can still take reputation management steps to put this right. Doing so will involve humility, probably a large compensation payment to the passenger (or fastening their seatbelts for a legal case, which will no doubt cost more) – and rewriting their internal rulebook.
United needs to make sure that its gate agents – who act like the law of the land – are more customer-friendly. No excuses. A couple of weeks ago, United was in the news after refusing boarding to a little girl wearing leggings, saying she was inappropriately dressed. Now this. Oh, and they break guitars, apparently.
Gate agents need training in keeping a level head – since on a Sunday evening, the compensation offer obviously wasn’t enough to tempt passengers to voluntarily give up their seats for the 300-mile journey. For such a short distance, in relative terms, offering a few dollars more would have probably clinched it.
The situation was already out of hand since passengers were on board – so surely at that stage it would have made sense for United to inconvenience its own off-duty staff. In fact, any number of solutions would have been a better move than dragging a passenger off a plane.