While sound in principle, these ideas simply don’t scale. When empowering employees, you have to do more than just say “make decisions in the customer’s best interest.” You need communication channels, best practices and TRAINING TRAINING TRAINING on how to do this. In many cases, the training was long forgotten and now people just act out of basic preservation of their job and reputation, NOT out of customer best interests. They do things out of THEIR best interest.
To change this, as has been said before, requires a culture shift. And a clear escalation communication channel that allows employees to escalate and respond quickly.
United is also not Starbucks. If you remember it was United airplanes that were used in 9/11. They are super sensitive to issues like this that can escalate quickly, and in edge cases like this you cannot really blame them for dealing things with a heavy hand. Maybe heavy hands could have prevented 9/11 they’d respond, or at least the thinking goes.
So yes, being empowered is important, as long as that power comes from a solid foundation with open lines of communication. Unfortunately most large businesses are not managed this way today. Maybe eventually though they will when the economics make sense, but for now a 1B market cap loss is not enough. United knows they’ll claw all that money back eventually, Twitter notwithstanding.