United Airlines is in the midst of a major reputational crisis after it decided to forcefully “re-accommodate” a passenger from a sold-out flight on Sunday. Yet judging from a series of informal conversations I had with passengers at United’s Los Angeles terminal and on one of its cross-country flights this week, the airline’s frequent fliers don’t seem to share the sense of outrage that’s ubiquitous on social media. Some of the reasons for this discrepancy speak to important lessons about crisis management and prevention that United, and other companies, should take away from this now-notorious event.
Frequent travelers do not appear as shocked as others. They know that airlines fill their planes to the limit almost routinely, betting that some passengers will change their travel plans at the last minute. They know that airlines offer passengers incentives to give up their seats when flights end up oversold or sold out, that sometimes passengers are involuntarily bumped off a flight, and that the airline has a legal right to do so.
Some of us have even been on flights, seated and ready to leave the gate, when suddenly there is a need to make space and someone has to deplane. I saw it happen when an acquaintance was asked by airline officials to wait for a later flight on a United Express commuter plane that was determined to have a weight issue, given updated information on prevailing winds. And most frequent travelers have witnessed irate passengers in one situation or the other, whether at the gate or on the plane.
As such, and judging from my admittedly limited and far-from-representative survey, frequent fliers seem to be a lot less outraged and surprised about what happened on that flight from Chicago to Louisville than the rest of the world is. Yes, United and law enforcement personnel exercised very poor judgment, and, critically, the use of force was totally and absolutely inappropriate. But planes get sold out, and passengers get irate. It happens, as regrettable and disappointing as that is.
Contrast this with the general sense of outrage and dismay. And it’s global: An event on a small U.S. domestic route ended up being the No. 1 trending topic on Chinese social media, raising possible challenges for a company with greater aspirations for its Asian lines of business and beyond.
One of the major reasons for this discrepancy is that customers with different levels of information have different expectations about what “normal” looks like. (Full disclosure: I’ve flown on United for decades and generally have been very satisfied with its overall service.) And that is something that companies like United should reflect much better in their contingency planning.
In the critical minutes of crisis management following the highly unfortunate incident, United failed miserably in explaining the context for its decisions. It initially said the flight had been overbooked, though it later issued a “clarification” to say that it had been sold out, USA Today reported. The airline then decided that four passengers had to be removed to make space for crew members, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin tells Today in the Sky.
United’s first set of communications was not just poor and badly structured. It was also overly ambitious in trying to differentiate between different stakeholders operating on an information playing field that was far from level. With its dismal failure to get the facts out quickly, United actually fueled rather than defused the spread of outrage.
Rather than stumble through the difficult exercise of reconciling multiple constituencies using different messages, United should have initially focused on their most important ones — their customers. The company could (and should) have expressed upfront genuine remorse for a customer who — remember — sadly ended up in hospital, rather than calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Moreover, in this day of rapid video dissemination, it took the airline way too long to counter the awful images of the incident with its own video of genuine apology and proper explanation.
Then there was the biggest failure of all: United should have dealt with the sold-out situation before starting the boarding process. Did they not know about their personnel requirements at that time?
Denying someone a seat on a plane is bad enough; doing so when the person is already sitting in it is a disaster to be avoided at all cost. If anything, it doesn’t provide the airline with much of an opportunity to explain to passengers why they were selected. Indeed, the most important takeaway from any crisis-management discussion is the need to strengthen crisis prevention!
Finally, and in what may be the most relevant lesson for the business community as a whole, it seems that United’s management had not spent enough time and energy on effective scenario planning. Apparently, there was insufficient focus on the “what ifs,” both internally generated (as was the case here) and in response to fake news.
Lacking a clearly anchored tone and a well-established approach, their crisis-management effort came across as unprofessional, disjointed and — especially — lacking in strategic underpinnings. This is a particularly large slippage at a time when companies have to live with a lot more “unusual uncertainty,” seeing any mishap easily amplified by social media. And it happened in a world in which companies already have to deal with a much longer list of improbables becoming reality.
While this awful incident is unlikely to change United’s business outlook in a material way over the long-term, it carries important lessons. The faster they are absorbed by the business community as a whole, the better it is for customers, too.
May 1 is Law Day. Isn’t that just a time when lawyers and judges get together to hype the legal system? I suppose it is that, but it is much more. It is a time to reflect on the remarkable system that the United States has established to adjudicate criminal charges and resolve civil disputes. Our system is admired by people and businesses around the world and it is responsible for making America the greatest economic power and moral beacon on the planet.
At the very foundation of our country is a dedication to the rule of law. People in America can generally walk down the street with the comfort of knowing they will not be accosted without good reason by government authorities. That is simply not the case in so many countries around the globe. There are many laws at both the federal and state levels that protect Americans from arbitrary government action. We take those protections for granted. We know that if we speak out against government policy we won’t be whisked off to a detention facility. People in Russia, China, and a myriad of other countries don’t have legal systems that will protect them against suffering punishment for voicing dissent. Witness the poisonings and assassinations of regime opponents in present-day Russia.
America grew into an economic powerhouse because of its observance of the rule of law. Businessmen in the U.S. and from around the world know that their assets will not be arbitrarily confiscated by the government. It is a given that the judicial system will decide disputes between and among people and businesses in a fair and impartial manner. With the assurance that their funds and investments will be safe from plunder by agents of the state, entrepreneurs have been willing to innovate and build businesses that fuel growth in the U.S. economy. Compare that with countries like Russia where successful businessmen who do not support the Putin regime have found themselves facing phony criminal charges and having their assets confiscated.
Due process is a hallmark of America’s legal system. People can’t be deprived of a property interest by the government without proper notice and an opportunity for a hearing. Where property is taken for a public purpose, such as a highway, the property owner is entitled to just compensation. People suspected of crimes are entitled to a variety of protections all of the way through investigative and court proceedings. Federal due process protections are applied in state courts through the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment also ensures that citizens throughout the country have equal protection under the law.
The foundation of our rule of law was laid out in our remarkable Constitution. The framers laid out the rights of citizens but also embedded provisions to prevent the erosion of those rights, what we often call checks and balances. Governmental power was divided among three branches — Congress was given the power to enact laws, the president was charged with faithfully carrying out those laws, and the judiciary was charged with applying the law. The courts cannot make their own laws but they routinely say how the Constitution and congressional laws are to be interpreted. One thing that the courts have historically done is to act as a check on the other two branches — to make sure that laws passed by Congress do not violate the Constitution and to make sure that the president does not exceed his lawful authority. They do neither unless a litigant brings a challenge to government action before the court.
Some people have the impression that judges base their decisions upon their own personal beliefs. I won’t deny that this happens on occasion but I believe it is a rather rare occurrence. Often constitutional or statutory language can be interpreted in more than one way. This does not occur often, but when judges disagree on the proper interpretation there is generally merit on both sides. It does not necessarily show that judges are imposing their personal opinions. I served on the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years and can’t recall an instance where one of my colleagues decided a case based on his personal beliefs. I do know that each of my colleagues decided cases in conflict with his personal opinions. That is because they respect and observe the rule of law.