United’s World of Woes
Editor’s Note: CommPRO reached out to Virgil Scudder, the “Dean of Media Trainers,” for this follow up to his analysis, United Airlines O’Hare Fiasco: A Lesson for All Leaders.
Virgil Scudder, President, Virgil Scudder & Associates
How can United Airlines ever dig itself out of its ever-deepening hole?
It won’t be easy, cheap, or quick. And, it’s not likely to be done without some dramatic changes in personnel, policy, and practices.
As most of the world now knows, the problems began last Sunday when a bumped passenger was dragged, bloody and screaming, off a United flight from Chicago to Louisville to make room for a crew member who needed to be on a flight out of Louisville Monday morning. The passenger’s lawyer says he suffered serious injuries and was even more traumatized than when he fled his native Viet Nam on a boat in 1975.
The airline badly mishandled the initial response to the situation with a statement from the CEO noting that the airline has a right to kick off passengers, calling the man disruptive, and praising the crew for its handling of the incident. It apologized only for having to “re-accommodate” passengers.
A subsequent CEO apology went farther but not far enough. The crisis continued to bubble.
Fate then stepped in to deal more blows to an airline that was already struggling with a terrible reputation for service. At mid-week, a passenger who bought a full fare first class ticket from Hawaii to Los Angeles said he was forced to give up his seat and placed in a middle seat in coach between a feuding couple that quarreled all the way to Los Angeles. The passenger said the crew threatened to handcuff him if he refused to move. He didn’t receive a formal apology or compensation, at least initially.
This is an incident that would have received minimal news coverage if not for the Chicago incident.
Then, along came a spider, or a scorpion or something like it, that fell out of an overhead bin on a flight to Calgary and stung a passenger. Talk about bad luck.
United now faces a multitude of problems including these:
- A multi-million-dollar drop in market valuation
- Passengers switching to other airlines
- A Congressional inquiry
- A heightening of the bad service reputation
- Employee morale becoming even worse
A number of major steps will need to be taken to rebuild United’s reputation. They include the following:
- Full and sincere apologies and generous compensation to all who have been affected
- Heads must roll, including that of the CEO who should be replaced by a proven industry veteran like former Continental CEO Gordon Bethune to clean up the mess
- Outside crisis counsel needs to be brought in and fully utilized
- Policies and procedures need to be examined and changed, emphasizing customer service instead of airline convenience
- An extensive PR campaign needs to be initiated, one focusing not on bland promises that “we’ll make it right” but outlining what will be done and then giving regular progress reports on just what it has done and why
As I said, this will not be a quick, cheap, or easy process. But it’s one the board of directors should demand and monitor. Failure to take such steps will carry a very high price.