United Airlines and the economics of customer experience

Like everyone else who has seen this video, I was horrified by the notion of a passenger treated as horribly – criminally – as this man was for doing nothing more than demanding the service he paid for.

The problem that United Airlines has is that there are so many problems here:

  • They oversold the flight: Passengers have come to expect this but that doesn’t mean they excuse it. When an airline sells more tickets than seats, the airline knows exactly what they are doing and the consequences for passengers. The benefit is entirely placed in favor of the airline.
  • A physical altercation involving authorities under this scenario is entirely wrong, on every level. United was in a no-win situation, let the passenger prevail by disobeying authorities or do what they did, but they put themselves in that situation and I happen to believe people have an obligation to resist authorities when they are acting immorally and with disproportionate action.
  • The statement from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is tone deaf: First and foremost, he was weak sauce when he should have been forceful and as outraged as the public. If he were not CEO of the company at the center of this fiasco, he would be outraged and the fact that he is CEO means he should be more outraged. He apologized for abusing a passenger, without acknowledging that they abused a passenger, and then failed to apologize for the action that got them there in the first place, overbooking. Biggest failure in the entire statement… using $10 words like “re-accomodate” that make it sound like the statement was indeed written by a PR flak. Elon Musk would never have released this statement if one of his cars ejected a passenger.
  • Blameshifting: You can see this playing out in realtime, everyone else is at fault. First it was authorities who quickly admitted that the officer involved was not following protocol, and then in the internal communication sent by Munoz to United employees, the blame shifted to the passenger. It’s a bit of a nonsequeter but I will still highlight that consumers are tired of hearing companies say “we apologize for your experience” and “we understand that you are frustrated” when what we really want to hear is “we screwed up, someone is going to be accountable, and we’re going to change the practices that allowed this to happen.”

However, United Airlines is most at fault for failing to understand a fundamental rule of customer experience, everyone has a price. Once the passengers had boarded, United was in a situation where money should not have been an obstacle. Keep ringing the bell to find the price where someone decides they can wait a day. If United paid passengers $10k… $20k to get off the plane at that point, would they have come out ahead relative to the economic damage they brand has suffered and will endure with for years to come? I think so.

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