United’s problem isn’t PR. It’s soul.
In his initial response to Sunday’s deplorable corporate behavior on United Flight 3411, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, talked about “re-accommodating” customers and characterized the event — a passenger being dragged off a United airplane by his arms and legs — as a consequence of “overbooking.”
On Thursday, the attorney for the man dragged from the plane, Dr. David Dao, 69, told the world that his client suffered a concussion, a sinus injury, and a broken nose. The Chicago officers who dragged him off the plane also knocked out two of Dao’s teeth.
Attorney Thomas Demetrio said that United employees asked Dao’s wife to leave the plane after he was forcibly removed. In at least one of the consumer videos of Sunday’s brutality, you can see a woman exit the plane at the end of the video.
Spin zone: overbooking
Airlines routinely overbook flights in order to fly with as few empty seats as possible. Anyone who has traveled a bit knows this. Thus United’s characterization was an adroit “PR” move in the disparaging/spin sense of the phrase.
The former CEO of Continental Airlines (maybe this explains the ‘former’ part) asserted on Monday that the situation was “an oversale obviously” (it wasn’t). He contended that it was the customer being forced from his seat who was acting in an “immature” manner. That’s pretty much what Munoz also said on Monday in his letter to employees. Can you get a better example of CEO privilege on display?
News media repeated United’s “overbooking” explanation, ad nauseam, despite United’s confirmation that seats were needed for four crew members. Not a routine “oversold” problem. Four employees needed to get from O’Hare to Louisville, and according to Munoz, they didn’t approach the gate until after the flight was fully boarded. You know. Late.
Ethically, the decision to pull four paying customers from their seats was wrong.
Legally, it’s questionable as well.
On Tuesday, the company admitted that the flight was not overbooked.
United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said Tuesday that all 70 seats on United Express Flight 3411 were filled, but the plane was not overbooked as the airline previously reported. Instead, United and regional affiliate Republic Airlines, which operated the flight, selected four passengers to be removed to accommodate crew members needed in Louisville the next day.
Assume for a moment that all of this had happened before passengers were boarded. United’s “denial of boarding” contract provisions apply only to flights that have been oversold.
Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.
United, according to its own policies, had no right to deny anyone boarding so that employees could fly. Especially employees who showed up late to the gate.
However, what took place on Sunday was not denial of boarding.
It was refusal of transport. And United’s Contract of Carriage 21 details the circumstances in which the airline can remove a passenger from one of its planes. Surprise! So employees can get to work is not on the list. [Screen caps: 1, 2, 3]
Score: United, 1: News media, 0
“PR” can’t “fix” United’s problem.
On Tuesday, Munoz issued a second apology.
Wednesday, Munoz: “this will never happen again.”
If your company does not have a crisis communications plan in place for when (not if, when) a video of something “bad” happening on your watch makes its way to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re the chief communications officer, you need to resign or be fired.
However, screwed up communications about a disaster and a CEO with foot-and-mouth (just trust the lawyers to craft the statement) disease is not the problem.
Saying United has a “PR problem” suggests the “solution” is akin to putting some lipstick on that pig.
Modifying external appearance (we might call that sleight of hand) does nothing to change the fact that the pig is still a pig.
United’s problem is not skin-deep. It’s soul deep.
The federal government has allowed airline consolidation to occur, unabated. And, apparently, relatively unregulated, in terms of consumer protection.
In 2014, Tim Wu pointed out that the airline industry — at least in America — is predicated on calculated misery and the profits that ensue from our wish to avoid suffering. It’s not your imagination that seats have gotten smaller and the space between rows, narrower.
Today, airlines make a substantial chunk of their income by selling services (credit card alliances) and charging fees for everything from checked baggage to a “better” seat (which, as USA Today noted in 2014, is worse than an average seat 20 years ago).
In 2014, Delta and United each made $1 billion on rebooking/change fees alone. Last year, the LATimes reported that 10 of the world’s largest airlines each brought in more than $1 billion solely from fees for things like checked luggage, reserved seats, food, Internet connectivity, and upgrades to more-leg-room in coach. In 2008, only American, Delta and United sucked up more than $1 billion in fees and “ancillary revenue.”
Don’t expect Wall Street to force a change in corporate behavior. UAL closed higher on Thursday 13 April (69.07) than it did the Monday after the leggings incident (68.37).
What’s the solution?
Airline policies on overbooking, involuntary denial of boarding, and “refusal of transport” (which is what happened in this case) need to be transparent and uniform across airlines. Penalities for violation? More than a slap on the wrist. But this is merely a symptom.
The only thing that can “fix” United is an introspective examination of organization purpose, which is not to “enhance shareholder value.” (Hint, that’s an outcome, not a purpose.)
The only thing that can “fix” the greed that underlies Sunday’s shocking behavior is a widespread public discussion of realistic returns on investment, the appropriate balance between human dignity and capital. United’s greed is a symptom of a systemic problem, a philosophy not limited to the airline industry.
The only thing that can “fix” the missing balance of power between customers and airlines is a regulatory system (FAA and DOJ) that realizes its mission is to serve the public interest not the capitalist interest.
Fundamentally, the fix lies with the collective “us” pushing back in a world that is becoming increasingly undemocratic and grossly unequal.
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Posted at 8:55 pm Pacific, 13 April 201