#17 – United Airlines – what it really needs to do to fix its reputation

#17 – United Airlines – what it really needs to do to fix its reputation

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Are you mad at United Airlines? So are we!

Each week, we’ll take a look at the most interesting reputation management stories, answer your questions, and share valuable ORM tactics. In this week’s episode:

  • There’s really only one thing to talk about this week: United Airlines. Erin Jones and I give it to you straight!

If you have a question you would like us to tackle, please leave a comment below or on my Facebook Page.

Transcript (forgive us for any typos):

Andy Beal:                  I really thought we were going to be talking about Nivia and Pepsi this week, but Erin Jones is with me, and, Erin, we’re talking about United again.

Erin Jones:                  Oh, my goodness. I think everybody’s talking about United right now.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, that is true. For those of you not in the know, I don’t know where you’ve been, but just to briefly summarize, United needed passengers to volunteer to give up their seats because they needed to get some employees from one destination to another. They offered incentives for people to give up. Nobody came forward, so they randomly chose … Well, they say randomly chose, but they randomly chose the least valued customers on the plane, the ones that are not the frequent fliers, and picked four of them.

One of them really needed to get back home and refused to leave, and consequently was dragged from his seat by the airport police, badly beaten up in the process. Not deliberately beaten, but got hit and bloodied being dragged from his seat. If you see the video you can see why. Chaos ensued. United fumbled the first one or two apologies because they were non-apologies, and finally has apologized and vowed to get to the bottom of it and sure it never happens again. In the meantime, oh my gosh, the media has gone crazy. Us social media reputation pundits all have our own theories. It’s been a whirlwind.

Before we jump into this, I want to just remind listeners that we try to look at this from a reputation perspective. That doesn’t necessarily always line up with what is just. Let’s cover here, and I think I speak for Erin when I say this, was it unacceptable to drag the passenger from his seat? Absolutely it was unacceptable. Should any innocent passenger ever get injured like that? No. Should United lose reputation and maybe stock value over this? Yes, I think they should. Should the CEO get fired? Probably. The policies originated from him. He fumbled the apology. Whether he will or not, I don’t know.

Should the passenger’s past criminal record play any factor in this? No, but it has been released. Does the passenger deserve a huge check in compensation? Yeah, he deserves something, probably at least six figures, maybe even seven.

Did I miss anything, Erin? This is pretty bad, right?

Erin Jones:                  I think the only other thing that I’ve been wondering about is if this is going to also affect the airport police or security’s reputation for how out of hand it got so quickly.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, because this is along the lines of police brutality. We see how those conversations get everybody fired up. There’s a fine line between the police doing their job and then getting very heavy handed, but at the same time, do what the police tell you to do, file the complaint, and sue them later is always my motto. But this was really bad, and I don’t think anybody can argue that. This is really bad. What I would like to do is look at, well, what’s the reputation impact here and what does United need to do? Because I think everybody else is going to talk about the fact that they botched the apology and all of that and this should never have happened and whatnot.

Here’s the thing. We have low expectations of airlines. It seems like every week a new airline is doing something terrible, and yet we keep flying them. It’s because we have few choices. We need the airlines even if we don’t like them. Some of us only have a certain airline that flies from our city and so we have to fly them. They have policies in place that protect them. They can kick you for just about any reason they want. Even if you’re sitting in the seat and a paying passenger, you should know you don’t have a whole lot of rights when it comes to the airlines.

We’re also seeing that, gosh, Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth and that’s taken the interest away a little bit. United’s stock is already starting to recover. I was reading today the financial pundits expect it to be back to normal in a week. It’s crazy.

Erin Jones:                  That’s amazing to me. I think it just really goes to show you that, especially in the effect of something like airline tickets that have a high expense for most people, that people aren’t making moral purchasing decisions with things like this. They’re not even the lesser of two evils I don’t think anymore. I think they do what is most convenient and most affordable and they look the other way with some of these other things.

Andy Beal:                  Right. You’ve got to weigh up necessity versus the reputation. It’s why Uber has not shut down yet, because there’s still a lot of people that need to use Uber, and so it’s not gone away because of all the mistakes it’s made over the past. The airlines are not going to go away. We basically have a choice of United, Delta, and American. You probably fly the airline that has been the least terrible to fly. I fly American a lot, but they’ve had a lot of issues. It’s just that their issues personally for me have not been as bad as Delta or United.

Erin Jones:                  Agreed. I usually choose somewhere between who’s most likely to get me where I’m going when I need to be there and who is going to take the least out of my children’s college fund to do so. Flying is very expensive. Now I feel like this almost is going to make passengers more in a fall-in-line mentality and, “Oh, my goodness, we have to behave,” because now you can really literally get beaten off of an airplane, over it effecting United negatively.

Andy Beal:                  We may even see passengers testing the airlines now, like, “I’m going to be defiant and push them, push the buttons,” see if they can get to the point where they, hopefully not get beaten up, but goes viral and they get compensation. We may even see that. Again, this is all very troubling and nobody wants to see a passenger beaten up, but you’ve got to look at this from the perspective of what’s out there and what’s actually going to happen.

United, unless they continue to have this situation, they’re going to make it through this. I saw where some pundit said it was reputation suicide. Well, if it was, they failed, because this is not a big enough thing. Yeah, we all hate United right now and probably are going to maybe make alternative choices for our next flight, but unless they keep screwing up, it’s going to blow over.

That’s the key, though. This was not a problem based on a particular employee’s action. This came from the top. This was a policy, a directive or procedure that somebody followed because it’s been determined by the higher-ups that, “Hey, if we need to get an employee to another city to make a flight, we’re going to bump paying passengers to do that,” and at the same time created an atmosphere where, unlike somewhere like Southwest where you hear all the time about employees being empowered to do the right thing, these other airlines, like United, they’re not empowered to do that. They just go by the book. When they’re not given enough training on how to think out of the box and how to be empowered to do the right thing, they don’t know how to do the right thing.

Erin Jones:                  Exactly. Can you imagine having to have been the employee on the ground that had to tell this guy that they were dragging him off of the airplane? I feel like that must have been horribly awkward for them, going, “Are you serious? He’s refusing. What do you want me to do here?”

Andy Beal:                  I think in a lot of situations like this you have that reputation point of no return. It’s that final decision where you had the chance to do the right thing, you made the wrong mistake, and you were left committed to that mistake. The moment whoever it was, gate agent, supervisor, decided, “$1,000 per ticket is enough, we are going to forcibly remove passengers,” and then make that decision to bring in airport police or security to remove them, it was all downhill from there. There was no recovering that.

Somewhere in there was that bad decision, and that’s a cultural thing. That’s pressure. We saw it with Wells Fargo. When you’ve got bonuses and you’ve got incentives to open new accounts, people will make bad decisions because of the pressure coming from them. Same with Comcast. When you’ve got pressure to retain customers and not let them cancel their cable, you make bad decisions.

If United can change the culture so that in situations like this it’s like, “Do the right thing. Screw on-time departure or costs or whatever it is. Do the right thing by our customers,” that’s the only way they’re going to turn it around. All the PR in the world, how he handled the apology, what he’ll do next time to make it better, all of that is solved if they look at the culture and the policies that are coming down from the top.

Erin Jones:                  Also speaking culturally, I want to know what these passengers’ past experiences with the airline have been that they’re turning down thousand-dollar travel vouchers. Is it too hard to rebook and use them? I would probably have gone, “You know what? It’s worth $1,000 to me to take a later flight,” unless past experience had shown me that I was never going to get that later flight.

Andy Beal:                  I’ve been on flights where I’m going to a client meeting or I’m going to do a keynote and if I don’t get this last flight out, that’s going to cost me thousands and thousands of dollars. I can see there are definitely lots of situations for business travelers, and this traveler had patients to go see. I think they could’ve kept upping the ante and almost playing brinkmanship, if you like, of like, “Okay, now we’re going to $1,200. First person to raise their hand gets the $1,200.” That would’ve been a better way to go. Then just peer pressure of just like, “Well, guys, we need someone to accept this. Otherwise, no one’s leaving.” Even that’s a better way to handle it than putting someone in handcuffs and dragging them off a plane and them getting all beaten up.

Erin Jones:                  Absolutely. I had read somewhere, and I’m not sure as to the accuracy because I didn’t have a lot of time to research it, that typically policy-wise, in these situations, if someone does not accept one of the opportunities for future vouchers, they’re supposed to completely de-plane and reassign all of the seats so that they lottery whoever’s not getting on. That way, everyone is off the plane and it prevents a drag someone off situation like this. However, a lot of airlines try to prevent doing that because it does mess up travel schedules. It does seem like it may have been more of a … I know in classrooms when students are acting up they’ve learned that if they take all of the kids out of the room except for the one that’s misbehaving, it’s easier than them witnessing something traumatic. I feel like this has proven that point.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, good point. That potentially would’ve made this less of an issue because everybody’s off the plane and then they figure it out. I’ve seen where there’s suggestions that they need to prevent airlines from overbooking, but the problem with that, that’s all very well and good, but all of our fares are going to go up, because the airlines rely on passengers missing connections or canceling their plans. They’ve got it figured out to a science. If we ban them from overbooking, 99% of the time it’s not a problem and we end up just paying higher fares.

I don’t think that’s the solution here either, but there’s got to be something from the top. If Southwest can have a really good reputation of just doing the right thing and they’re a budget airline, then surely United, Delta, American, that are all making pretty good money these days … Let’s not beat around the bush. They’re not struggling like they used to. They’re making good money on fees and all that kind of stuff. Surely they have the leeway to have something in place.

You usually see that airlines follow the lead of other airlines in whatever it happens. If United can figure out … They said they’re going to get back with the solution by April 30th with what they’re going to do. The CEO has vowed that this kind of thing will never happen again. They’ve got to figure out what it is and it’s got to be something I think pretty bold and then hope the other airlines follow suit so it becomes the norm.

Erin Jones:                  I agree. I feel like this whole situation is just littered with bad decisions, from the beginning when it happened all the way through to these multiple statements from the CEO. I’m seeing people turn on each other on social media. When people have an airline that they love, they are very defensive of that airline. I’m seeing people fighting about defending United or being anti-United. I don’t know that United really cares about either of you. Why are you letting this actually damage personal relationships? It’s turned into almost a political situation. It’s baffling to me to watch this all play out. Everybody wants their voice to be heard, and I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody come up with a great solution yet, aside from great customer service.

Andy Beal:                  Right. I think empowering employees is so critical here. Not to blow my own horn here, but think about when we were working on the tracker product. I remember a conversation we had about we can’t think ahead of every customer complaint, every customer issue that’s going to come up and put in place a policy. I remember us talking about it, and I said, “Look, just use your common sense and do what you think is right. Let’s make that customer happy.” It may be that you go too far and give them something that I’d rather we not give every customer, but I would rather us then talk about it internally after the fact and say, “Hey, okay, so going forward, if we see this again, this is what we should do.” I’d rather do that but give you the flexibility to know that, if you can’t reach me and you need to make a decision, just do whatever you think is the right thing to do by the customer. That can scale to any size company.

Erin Jones:                  Absolutely. I think we see time and time again that it is always less expensive to do it that way. If United had given someone a little bit of leeway, and even if they had spent $100,000 it would’ve saved them about $790 million in the long run just in yesterday’s stock losses. That would’ve definitely been the right way to go.

Andy Beal:                  And how much is he going to win if he sues them, whoever he sues? This is going to hurt somebody financially as well as their reputation. He’s probably going to get pretty good compensation from this. I do think that a lot of this, a lot of these prophetic warnings, “United is done,” and all these people saying they’re boycotting the airline, I think we see it time and time again. People get just outraged at the smallest things. When it’s something significant like this that we can all just picture ourselves being in that situation, of course social media’s going to go crazy, mainstream media’s going to go crazy, but I just don’t see this being a long-term effect unless they continually have incidents like this.

This is going to be something that unfortunately will die down. That’s the thing. It’s like we just don’t stick to our guns. It’s like even the people that are saying, “I’m going to boycott,” usually it’s prefaced by saying, “I’ve never flown United and I’m never going to fly them again.” Well, you’re not exactly hurting them. You’ve already made that decision, so you’re not sacrificing anything and you’re not really hurting them. You can see the token people that follow through with it, but the problem is we end up tolerating this kind of stuff, just like we tolerate a lot of injustice. We have a big outcry and the companies know that they can just ride it out and not have to do much more than a token gesture in return.

Erin Jones:                  Exactly. I am curious about the ripple effect with this. I read somewhere this morning that there was a teacher onboard with seven students. They were elementary school students. He took them off of the plane because he felt that they were being traumatized. He said there was blood everywhere and it was a huge mess. I’m wondering how many people from this flight are going to jump onto this lawsuit bandwagon. Even so, like you said, I think they’re going to write their checks and it’s going to go away and we’re going to move onto the next story.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, but, like you pointed out, how much cheaper would it have been to just avoid this in the first place? Take those employees, put them on a competing airline, or, heck, even a private jet or a limo and get them to where they need to go to. It wasn’t far.

Erin Jones:                  A helicopter, something.

Andy Beal:                  Yeah, exactly. I think brands, they don’t think ahead. I see this time and time again, whether the product is $20 or $2,000, whatever it may be. They think about, “What is this going to cost us today?” They make their decision on, “This is going to cost us money if we do the right thing here,” and then they don’t think about how much it’s going to cost them in the long run if they don’t do the right thing.

That’s why you see companies arguing over a $20 refund when they don’t factor that that customer is then going to go and take to Facebook, Yelp, Google, write negative reviews, and really not only damage your reputation that way, but take away your concentration. You’re going to lose potential customers that read the negative reviews. Now that $20 and maybe an extra $10 on top of that as an apology has turned into thousands of dollars of lost business. We see that a lot no matter what the cost of the product.

Erin Jones:                  Definitely. Then you’re looking at the expense of hiring someone to help you get through it and the lost hours. It keeps going. I really can’t help but wonder how much of this after the initial decision was made was because of ego and chest-puffing. “Get off the plane.” “No, I’m not getting off the plane.” “Well, I’m going to make you get off the plane.” “No, you’re not.” It seems like it just escalated so quickly. It almost feels like the pushback was, I don’t want to say ego, but how much of it was someone digging their heels in and standing their ground instead of saying … They couldn’t go back and say, “Fine, we’ll pick a different passenger,” because then the second passenger would’ve behaved exactly the same way.

Andy Beal:                  Right. We see it a lot where managers or supervisors in restaurants or businesses, they take it personally. They get defiant. I don’t know how they ignore the smartphone that’s capturing everything on video and just think that this is just going to blow over. We live in a day and age where everything is going to be captured, everything’s going to be commented on, and you’re going to be judged in the court of public opinion and social media channels. You need to keep that in mind, and United needs to keep that in mind going forward, that all of this … Look at the issue with the leggings. They barely got through that, but only because it was policy. Well, the policy was a joke and should’ve had some flexibility, but people almost gave them a pass because they could see that it was a non-revenue passenger. But you’ve got something like this, and I think that they do need to make a change.

I think we’re only going to see a significant change if all the airlines agree to it. I think that we need to keep the pressure on and not be like the ADHD dog that’s like, “Squirrel!” and we just all chase after the next social media thing that we want to be outraged about. This needs to be something that people truly want to get changed. Then maybe they will start to make that change. We’ll see.

We’re like everybody else. We have our own opinions on this. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been going over my head what I was wanting to talk about all day, because this is ridiculous. The airlines are almost pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with, and I think they’ve reached that boundary and they need to make a change. Hopefully, United will be the first one that says, “Hey, wait a minute. Rather than just having a bill of rights for passengers that just does the bare minimum, let’s actually treat passengers the way we would want to be treated and let’s put them first. Then maybe they’ll choose to fly with us because of the great experience and not just because we’ve got the cheapest ticket between A and B.”

Erin Jones:                  Yeah. I would love to see them come out and go, “We screwed up and here’s what we’re doing.” No more talking around it, dancing around it. I feel like they would get so much more respect back so much more quickly if they would just come and say, “We really messed this up.”

Andy Beal:                  Yeah. Good point. On that note, we’ll leave it there, because I think we could speak for another 20 minutes. We had another three or four stories for today, but as you can see, we’re not going to get to that.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Just come by the Facebook page, andybealORM, or head to my blog, andybeal.com. Find this podcast post and leave us a comment. Reach out to us on Twitter, @AndyBeal, @ErinJones. We’d love to hear your thoughts, anything you agree with, anything you disagree with. Be gentle. We’re not perfect. We’ll keep an eye on this and see what comes from this by April 30th after the investigation’s been done and they followup on this and we’ll keep you informed.

Thanks for joining us. Erin, thank you. Pleasure, as always.

Erin Jones:                  Thank you very much.

Andy Beal:                  Thank you guys for listening in and especially on this 24-minute rant that we had today. Hopefully you have enjoyed it and found it useful. We’ll tune in again next week. Thanks a lot, and bye-bye.

ByAndy Beal

Andy Beal is The Original Online Reputation Expert™. A bestselling author of two critically-acclaimed reputation management books, a keynote speaker at dozens of events, and brand consultant experience with thousands of individuals and companies.