Even if you’ve been living in the proverbial cave at the bottom of the proverbial salt mine the news of United Airlines PR disaster-to-end-all-PR-disasters must have reached you by now.
I’ve covered disaster, catastrophe and the required corporate apology before. But that was something minor – just an oil spill and devastation of a coastline. In PR terms, hauling Dr David Dao up the aisle of the United flight to Kentucky was in an altogether different league.
Why? It’s simple. Devastating a coastline is tragic: of course it’s a disaster. But it’s a news item.
What United did to Dr Dao was personal. There isn’t one of us who – next time he flies – won’t sit in his seat, fasten his safety belt and then glance at the aisle of the aeroplane and think, ‘It could have been me…’
Was United’s action legal? Sadly, yes. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, in 8pt print at the bottom of page 23. Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are so inconsiderate that they turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. Then…
And the figures are small – almost insignificant. In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.
But none of this matters: because we’ll all look at the aisle of the plane and wonder…
Not surprisingly, United took a savage beating on social media: ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ rapidly became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags…
We put the hospital in hospitality!
Fight or flight
If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em
…And several others which have no place in a family blog on a Friday morning.
The stock market was equally quick to react with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.
United’s response to all this was ‘apology by committee.’ You could see the eventual statement had gone round the company several times, with every department head making sure his own base was covered. CEO Oscar Munoz even tried to deflect the blame on to David Dao, saying that he had been “disruptive and belligerent.”
What would I have done? Four things:
- Have one person immediately issue a genuine and sincere apology to Dr Dao and the other passengers on the flight, without worrying about any hurt feelings at United HQ
- Settle Dr Dao’s lawsuit immediately, whatever the cost. United cannot have people constantly reminded of this incident
- Sack the security team, sack the CEO and sack anyone else who didn’t have the courage and the common sense to say, “Stop. This is wrong.”
- Announce an immediate end to the overbooking of flights. United – and all other airlines come to that – need to give an absolute guarantee that you cannot pay for a flight and then be ‘bounced.’
But all those moves are simply locking the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. What they needed – what every company needs – is a culture where incidents like that simply cannot occur in the first place. No-one can legislate for one individual’s erratic behaviour, but in United’s debacle everyone screwed up – and it was indicative of a deeper malaise at the company.
Thankfully as I meet more and more Alternative Board members up and down the UK I see the same commitment to clients and customers, and the same determination to build and empower great teams, that was so evident in York. Dr Dao would be safe with any member of the Alternative Board. (United’s HQ is in Chicago: maybe it’s not too late for Oscar Munoz to sign up…)
That’s it for this week – and yes, before you ask, I have noticed that there’s going to be a General Election. I’ll tackle it next week…