While sound in principle, these ideas simply don’t scale.
Alex Sirota

If you have to scale this, then your business model is fundamentally flawed on a deeper level. Both United’s issue and Priceline’s are situations in which their well thought out processes failed. If Priceline was frequently putting up customers in illegally operating hotels or United was frequently having to force customers off planes, no amount of employee empowerment would fix that.

The issue was that no one had either the authority or the incentive to handle an edge case, and the training tells them that when what they’re doing isn’t working — keep doing it. The only people empowered to exceed the established procedures are so far up the “clear escalation communication channel” that they’re effectively useless for any divergence from the procedures that could preserve revenue.

You really hit the nail on the head with training and incentives along with culture. There has to be a cultural shift. Part of that has to be at the top trusting people further down the line. There should have been someone at the airport (or easily accessible by those there) with the authority to exceed protocols. I can’t imagine, based on the videos, that every employee involved thought they were doing the best thing. Passengers can even be heard shouting suggestions for alternative solutions. Even just offering enough cash might have prevented this entire situation and saved them far more than they will lose, but either no one had the authority or no one had the incentive or (less likely) no one had the presence of mind to push for a process exception (which would mean they need more training, as you said).

Priceline, for example, has apparently now reached out to the woman in my article and issued a refund and apology — but only once the issue made it up to a senior executive level. That’s too far up the chain to have to go to fix a situation where most humans would recognize that something is wrong. By then, most of the damage she was capable of doing had already been done. The Customer Service Manager who received her initial escalation from front line support should have had the authority to exceed their “no refunds” policy given the situation.

There’s always going to be a balance and not every business will be the same. While the reductio ad 9/11ium may be a bit extreme (the situation should have been handled by a process exception long before it escalated into someone being a risk ), airlines are a far more serious business than Starbucks.

My only argument is that the process fetish that corporations have make them inadequately flexible to handle the speed of modern business where the failure costs are higher.

Thanks for reading! Really appreciate your comments.