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It’s easy to pile on United.

More than the mistakes, it’s the type of mistakes, lacking that quality known as common sense.

I’ve certainly taken my shots at United over the years with posts ranging from “The Worst Customer Service Narrative in the History of Branding” to the recent “United Enters Third Stage of a PR Grieving: The Shake Down.” Forcibly detaching a customer from his seat is never going to have a happy ending.

Still, how a company communicates to the outside world after an egregious mistake goes a long way toward shaping public perception and if the media moves on to the next disaster. The words matter as we saw when United’s CEO Oscar Munoz initial response to the crisis consisted of:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

 I think we can all agree that “re-accommodate” wasn’t quite the right verb.

accomodate definition

Fast forwarding to today, United appears to have its act together on the communications front.

Taking the adage to the heart – “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” – United’s latest letter to customers, dare I say, hits the mark.

Dear ______,

Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.

Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?

It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.

Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.

While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, “I fly United.”

Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.

We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.

With Great Gratitude,

Oscar Munoz United Airlines signature

Oscar Munoz
United Airlines

The letter strikes the right tone (minus the sign off “With Great Gratitude”).

Equally important, United recognizes that pretty words aren’t going to pacify the masses. Instead, the core of the letter lays out why the debacle occurred and specific actions taken by United to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

O.k., I do find it hard to believe that United’s 87,000 employees “are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.”

Here’s a test for United to reveal if the airline is truly energized to serve the customer better.

As a long-time United flyer who has logged over a million miles on the airline, I fell a couple thousand miles short of achieving Premier 1K status last year. I called United to ask “Brother, can you spare a dime” and top me off for 1K status?

They said no.

Will this post on a blog that on a good month reaches 10,000 folks find its way into United’s social listening tool? If yes, does United have the wherewithal to shuttle it to the right person? And will this person make the executive decision to say we appreciate your business and are jumping you to 1K status?

It just so happens I’m on an overseas flight next month so 1K status would greatly increase the probability of obtaining an upgrade with miles.

I know that’s a tall order.

But a guy can dream.


  • Shawn Callahan

    There is a bigger cultural issue which you rightly point out: the adherence to the rules above doing what is right seems to be a principle. I saw this in action flying United a few weeks back. I was flying first class and my bag was 1kg over the limit. The rule said the customer must pay $120 extra. I told them that enforcing that rule will mean I will never fly United again. They seemed to care less. Anyway I’m off to the US again in a few weeks and told my travel agent to avoid United wherever I can.

    I think this type of adherence to the rules happens when employees are scared to do what’s right. Psychological safety is a key factor in great team performance (see recent study by Google). Perhaps some work on their culture is needed starting from the top.

    • Lou Hoffman

      I like the way you put it, “this type of adherence to the rules when employees are scared to do what’s right.” While the recent episode tunes the senses of United’s work force, it will be interesting to see if they keep the scent of the trail. Changing a culture of 86,000 employees is a marathon.

      Reading a receent review in the NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/dining/union-square-cafe-review.html?_r=0, this line caught my attention: “This empathic attunement to disturbances in the Force defines the Meyer brand of hospitality.” It can be done.

  • Marc Eijsackers

    Well put Shawn, Lou. However don’t underestimate the effect of years of extensive programs on operational excellence and process management guru’s preaching efficiency and lean methods. It has created rules and procedures that obscure customer needs and leave no room for empathy or autonomous thinking. Employees are not only scared, they simply lack any other reference with respect to customer centric behavior. Front office staff have most of the answers; if we would only ask them.

    • Lou Hoffman

      Good points. Seems like all consumer brands should be striving for that illusive quality called empathy.


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