United Airlines, the world’s third largest airline by revenue, is facing the wrath of the instant media world. In a flight operated by a partner, Republic Airways, from Chicago to Louisville in the US, the airlines needed to fly four of its crew so they could operate a flight from Louisville which would otherwise have had to be cancelled. Since the plane was full, the airlines operating within its government approved rules had the right to randomly choose four passengers to vacate their places in return for compensation. Three obliged. The fourth, a physician of Vietnamese origin, refused as he first believed he was being discriminated against, and then complained his patients needed him. The airlines official then called the airport police who physically extracted him from his seat and began to drag him through the aisle.
And you guessed it. The whole episode was recorded in the ubiquitous smartphone, was uploaded and viewed by several million people.
United is now facing the music for adhering to rules, and ironically this happened to a doctor. (Airlines sometimes have to rely on the kindness of doctors in an emergency on board.) The company’s stock fell over 1 per cent and you can be sure a multimillion dollar suit is under preparation.
In China, the video hit new highs in circulation, perhaps because it was initially thought the affected passenger was Chinese. But as a student from China explained, bad news about the US is always heavily promoted by the government-controlled media in China!
United, which presently ranks eighth by quality among US carriers, needs to take away a couple of lessons from this episode. Lesson one is the importance of customer service. No business that has millions of personal contacts with customers on a daily basis can ignore the imperative of being focused on the customer. The airline does not see its customer when it sells the ticket anymore, and often does not check customers in. Even passengers with baggage are nowadays directed to a kiosk where they print out their baggage tag. The airlines are reminded that they deal with humans only at the gate. They do not serve passengers beverages or meals on flight, they ‘sell’ to them. Thus, they have begun to lose the skill of serving people. They need to get this back. Being safe and on-time is no a special feature, but the minimum expected of airlines. The internal email sent by the CEO who said that the passenger was disruptive and efforts were made to “re-accommodate” him reflects disconnect from customers.
The second lesson is that the organisation needs to empower its employees down the line. Rules about evicting passengers were adhered to, but clearly the employees at the gate did not feel they had the discretion to look for alternative solutions. When the passenger did not vacate, they called the police and watched.
Old rules do not apply when nothing is confidential, events are captured on video and instantly circulated. Just a few weeks ago, United was damned by video when it prevented two women passengers from boarding a flight because they wore leggings. If people read the whole report, they would have learned that United has dress regulations for people travelling on a pass. Meanwhile, the world had already condemned them for being heartless.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston