Lessons from a flight gone wrong

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It’s the stuff corporate nightmares are made of. The video of Dr. David Dao being dragged off United Express Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017, his face bloodied, quickly went viral. People (read: potential customers) questioned why a passenger who was already seated and held a proper boarding pass would be forcibly removed to make space for an airline employee.

Social media feeds were swamped with bitter commentary. Ad parodies included the taglines “We beat our competitors … not our customers” and “The only things we pull out of the plane are your two free checked bags.” Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres and other entertainers had a field day. Down the road, the incident is likely to become a business school case study about how to turn a routine situation into a crisis.

That’s because what happened over the next few days amounted to a textbook case of how not to handle a public-relations disaster. On April 10, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, offered a weak apology for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” neglecting to mention either Dao or United’s treatment of him. The same day, in an internal communication that was subsequently leaked, he stated that employees “followed established procedures” for removing a passenger from an overbooked plane. He went on to say, “I emphatically stand behind all of you.” Eventually, on April 12, Munoz told Good Morning America that he felt “shame” when he watched the video of Dao’s forceful removal from Flight 3411.

United and every other modern corporation should realize that in the 21st century, three days of fumbling missteps are extremely difficult to recover from. They have to do all they can to avoid embarrassing situations that can be broadcast to the world, and they have to understand that when something damaging does happen, halfhearted apologies and separate messaging for distinct audiences (everything can be leaked) will only make things worse.

IT and other customer service organizations should use the following guidelines to avoid creating a crisis or at least emerge from one with reputation intact:

  • Own the problem. The 1982 Tylenol tampering remains the gold standard. As soon as the cause of the drug-associated deaths was discovered, Johnson & Johnson acknowledged that poison had been placed in some capsules. The company recalled 31 million Tylenol packages and issued regular updates until the problem was resolved. A year later, Tylenol had recovered most of its lost market share, and Johnson & Johnson was seen as a trustworthy company.

In contrast, Munoz only admitted the situation had been handled poorly following immense criticism on social media and calls for his resignation.

  • It is cheaper to settle than to allow a problem to escalate. Airlines have been overbooking for years, and the system generally works well. Before boarding of an overbooked flight begins, the gate agent offers compensation for any passenger willing to take a later flight. If not enough people volunteer, the amount offered is increased until enough passengers decide the inconvenience is worth the compensation. (United later stated that the plane was sold out but not overbooked, but the same process applies.) With passengers already on the plane, United asked for four volunteers to deplane, offering $200 per passenger. When nobody accepted its final $800-per-person offer, United Express selected four people to bump. Three deplaned, but Dao refused and was forcibly removed.

United would have been much better off increasing the amount offered until four passengers accepted. Alternatively, it could have chartered a plane to move its four employees from Chicago to Louisville, Ky. It is likely that either approach would have been significantly less expensive than the undisclosed cost of the settlement with Dao that United said it had reached last week. In addition, United would have avoided the wasted management time, legal fees and damage to its reputation. Known costs may be expensive but are almost always less expensive than the alternative. Don’t just look at the incident costs; consider the total cost of a failure (TCF).

  • Empower employees to do the right thing. When there were no volunteers at the apparent limit of $800, someone should have contacted a supervisor before calling aviation security. Presumably, someone in the management chain could (and, one hopes, would) have increased the amount offered before the situation spun out of control.

Forbes blames the incident on United’s heavy reliance on operational excellence to deliver low cost. Forbes asserts that overreliance on business rules harms customer service and permits incidents of this type to occur. While organizations need rules and processes to operate efficiently, exceptions arise. Employees should be encouraged to evaluate the situation before blindly following the rules.

  • Analyze available data quickly and wisely. Until it completes it internal incident review, United won’t disclose when it discovered it would need four seats for its crew. Since the crew members arrived at the gate after Flight 3411 had boarded, it is likely that there was a last-minute decision to use Flight 3411 to move staff.

Crew scheduling is very complex; a morning delay can set off a multiday daisy chain of schedule disruptions. While the exact sequence of events is unknown, the United systems likely showed that it might be necessary to relocate staff to Louisville well before Flight 3411’s early-evening departure. As soon as Flight 3411 became an option and was known to be sold out, a contingency plan should have been developed. At a minimum, permission to increase denied-boarding compensation could have been obtained and gate agents could have been told to identify volunteers before boarding. If a different option for crew relocation had been selected, nobody would have cared about Flight 3411.

  • Assume all actions are being recorded. In the smartphone era, organizations have to assume that every questionable event will show up on social media within minutes. As Scott McNealy said in 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

The old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity is no longer true. Video footage increases the public’s reaction to any situation. BP’s reputation was seriously damaged when the evening news featured survivor interviews along with videos of Deepwater Horizon burning. Companies need to review all policies and procedures from the perspective that anyone with a smartphone can post a video on Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter, etc.

  • Bad communication is costly. One inappropriate statement can erase the public’s memory of previous positive communications. It is ironic (and somewhat humorous) that in March, PRWeek named United’s CEO Communicator of the Year. On April 11, PRWeek called the airline’s communications “tone deaf” and went on to say, “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.” No kidding.
  • Learn from your mistakes. United has apparently still not learned about the power of social media. In 2008, a guitar owned by Dave Carroll, the leader of the Sons of Maxwell band, was broken by United baggage handlers. After a year of unsuccessful attempts to get United to pay for the repairs, the band produced a YouTube video, “United Breaks Guitars,” with a catchy tune and memorable lyrics. The video went viral and has been watched more than 17 million times. After 50,000 views, the managing director of customer solutions called Carroll to apologize and claimed the company hoped to learn from the incident. Apparently, the lesson did not stick. In 2014, the guitar of another musician, Ellis Paul, was broken while checked on a United flight. United initially declined to compensate him (settlement terms are confidential). And United clearly forgot all about customer service on Flight 3411.
  • Learn from your competitors. Other airlines learned quickly from United’s disaster. Within days, American Airlines announced that passengers who have boarded will not be removed to allow someone else to take their seat. Delta announced that gate agents have been authorized to pay up to $2,000 to entice passengers to relinquish seats on overbooked flights. (In some situations, with appropriate supervisory approval, that limit can be raised to nearly $10,000.) Apparently, United is finally learning. An April 27 email to MileagePlus members stated that the incident happened “because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values,” The airline also announced that employees will have more discretion to provide “on-the-spot good will gestures to customers.”

Treat your customers properly because it is the right thing to do. If your organization does not adhere to that ideal, then treat your customers properly because questionable actions will be visible to the world in minutes. That’s much worse than having 60 Minutes show up at your front door with a camera crew; the staff at 60 Minutes has always tried to present balanced, fair and well-researched reporting. But now any smartphone owner can publish video clips from whatever perspective they choose. Scary. Just ask United.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

This story, “Lessons from a flight gone wrong” was originally published by
Computerworld.

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