Posted on 4/17/2017

United Airlines PR disaster has roots in operations missteps

Pavan Muzumdar

After video of United Airlines passenger Dr. David Dao being violently dragged from a plane went viral recently, the national conversation surrounding the incident has characterized this as a public relations disaster. In its response, United has swayed from one extreme of blaming Dr. Dao for resisting security officers, to being completely contrite to the point of offering all passengers on the flight a full refund. 

But few are talking about the root cause of this situation: a major operations blunder. This horrifying situation that left a 69-year-old paying customer bloodied and injured could have been completely avoided had United not outsourced such a sensitive customer service interaction as a matter of policy to an external security force, the Chicago Police Department. The fundamental question to ask is, “was this really a security situation?”

Shortly after passengers boarded the full flight from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., four crew members showed up needing seats. The airline asked for four passengers to leave the airplane to accommodate the crew. Incentives were offered and three passengers begrudgingly agreed. The fourth, Dr. Dao, resisted. 

It has now come to light that the standard operating procedure at United was to view this as a security situation and call in aviation officers who are not airline employees, to remove passengers who are not cooperating. But let’s be clear, this was not a security situation. This was a highly sensitive customer relations issue and should never have been handed over to a security force. Incentives could have been raised, planes could have been chartered, Uber could have been called. The costs of these alternatives pale in comparison to the millions of dollars of market value, loss of goodwill, and ongoing legal liabilities that United now faces.

Any reasonable business owner would expect a paying customer who is denied service -- for no other reason than a logistics issue that is not their fault -- to be irate and even obstinate. It is during these kinds of challenging situations that a company’s response reveals its true brand essence. This is an opportunity for all of us to evaluate our own customer relations processes, to learn from this mistake and to never outsource critical and sensitive points of customer contact to someone who may not have the same level of ownership in the business relationship as we might.

About the Author

Pavan Muzumdar | Automation Alley

Pavan Muzumdar is Automation Alley’s chief operating officer. In this role, Muzumdar is responsible for facilitating the smooth functioning of Automation Alley, enabling the organization to execute its strategic goals with excellence and realize its vision. Muzumdar has an extensive background in organizational management and is the creator of the organizational tool icube™, a collection of simple, effective techniques and disciplines that help companies run smoothly. In addition to serving as Automation Alley’s COO, Muzumdar is the lead facilitator of the icube™ methodology in the organization’s successful entrepreneurship program, the Automation Alley 7Cs™.


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