Oswald Letter

A little compassion would have gone a long way for United Airlines

Seat Rows inside an Airplaneby Dan Oswald

Imagine you own a restaurant. It’s a small, cozy place that caters to families and has a great reputation not only for the food but also for the atmosphere. One evening, a customer comes in and orders that night’s special. When his entrée arrives, he takes issue first with the temperature and then with the taste of the dish. Having already served it to dozens of other patrons already this evening, your staff is both surprised and skeptical. After they apologize and offer his dinner for free, the customer continues to complain loudly, becoming the focal point of the entire restaurant.

Your staff isn’t sure what to do at this point. They clearly have a dissatisfied customer who is now infringing on the dining experience of other customers. They’ve apologized repeatedly and offered to comp his dinner to no avail. Not sure what else to do, they ask the customer to please leave. This only makes him angrier. The staff members point out that the restaurant reserves the right to deny anyone service and again ask him to please leave. He refuses. At their wit’s end and in an effort to provide an enjoyable dining experience to the other customers, they finally call the local police to come help remove the man from the restaurant.

The police show up, and you now have a scene. The other customers look on with rapt attention as the police arrive to escort the customer out of the restaurant. They ask the customer to come outside with them, but he refuses. He’s more upset now than ever, and the situation appears to be escalating. The police give him one more chance to leave the restaurant before forcibly removing him. He again refuses. So the police now grab the customer and drag him from your restaurant. In the commotion, a table is knocked over as the man flails against the officers, resulting in a gash on the customer’s forearm.

A member of your staff calls you to let you know what just transpired. After hearing your employees’ side of the story and speaking with the police, you determine that your staff followed the restaurant’s protocol. They apologized to the customer, repeatedly. They offered his dinner free of charge. They politely asked him to leave after he became a disruption to other customers, invoking your policy to refuse service to anyone. Then, when the situation escalated, they called for professional help instead of attempting to forcibly remove the customer themselves. You confirm their handling of the situation in an e-mail that goes out to all employees.

Yet the next day, the local newspaper’s website has the story, including video taken by other customers and a copy of your e-mail to the employees. The coverage and the comments on the newspaper’s site aren’t flattering to you or your restaurant. In fact, you’re being vilified for the handling of the situation. It’s a blow to a small business in a local community.

Sound familiar? You’ve probably guessed by now, but the situation I just described is similar to the one United Airlines found itself in when a passenger refused to leave a plane. My assertion is that the mistake wasn’t made by the crew on the plane—it was the company’s handling of the fallout that followed when the video of the incident went viral and the media jumped on the story.

As a frequent traveler, I don’t like the fact that the airlines, in their “contract of carriage,” allow themselves the right to remove passengers from a flight under certain circumstances. Being the person asked to leave a flight would be extremely frustrating when you have somewhere to be, but it’s part of the risk you assume when purchasing a ticket. It’s one we probably don’t like to think about and one we’d all like to have changed, but it’s a common practice shared by the airlines. The problem for United is that it makes us all sympathetic to the passenger, not the airline, when a situation like this arises. We’re predisposed to demonize the airline.

Then, in response to the video of the incident going public, United CEO Oscar Munoz sent a letter to employees supporting the employees involved in the situation. It’s not a bad thing for a CEO to do in a situation like this. In his letter, he confirmed that the employees had followed protocol and that he stood behind their actions. He also stated that this situation was a learning opportunity for everyone at United.

Unfortunately, Munoz also referred to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” That clearly was a mistake. It showed a lack of sensitivity to the situation and a poor reading of where the public’s sympathies would lie. He gave the public another reason to side with the passenger.

Finally, while the crew did follow protocol and called aviation security as the situation escalated, Munoz and United weren’t helped when the police had to resort to physically removing the passenger. It undoubtedly got rough, and the man ended up bloodied by the altercation. I can’t imagine that was anyone’s desire, but it happened. I’m not sure how United gets held responsible for the way aviation security acted, but it did. It wasn’t like this was a private security force of United Airlines.

It’s another tough situation for Munoz. I’m sure he didn’t like the video that resulted from the way the police handled extracting the passenger, but it’s hard to criticize law enforcement that your company is called on to work with closely to keep all air travelers safe. Whether he agreed with the way they handled the situation or not, he chose not to comment and possibly offend law enforcement. The result is that instead of distancing United from the officers’ actions, the lack of comment led most viewing the video to associate the behavior directly with the airline.

My view may not be a popular one, but I think the United crew did what they felt was right and necessary. When a situation got beyond their control, they called in the professionals to help. The results weren’t what anyone would like to see, but the passenger bears some responsibility for that as well. I can’t argue with a CEO who supports his employees when he thinks they did what was right and necessary—especially when they were handling a difficult situation in real time and followed company protocol. And I don’t think Munoz’s description of the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” was inaccurate, but it was insensitive. There was no reason for him to criticize the passenger with whom many people sympathized.

I don’t see that United was wrong in its handling of a really difficult situation, but the airline screwed up royally afterward when it failed to understand the impact the video of the incident would have and failed to respond accordingly. Instead of mitigating the damage, the airline compounded it with a lack of sensitivity to the passenger involved in the incident. It may be a fine line to walk, but Munoz could have supported his people while demonstrating compassion to another human being who had been harmed. He didn’t, and he’s paying the price.

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