What happens when anger, mismanagement cloud the ‘friendly skies’

With the recent viral video of a paying passenger being dragged down the aisle and off the plane, I think United Airlines has a lot of work ahead of itself if it ever wants to ask people to “Fly the friendly skies” again.

Here’s the video behind the furor:

It’s an operational, personnel, and public relations crisis for United, but for other businesses it can be instructional. How does an incident with one passenger turn into an event that captures the attention of the world and drives United’s stock price down several percentage points?

Operational dysfunction

For generations, wise moms have been telling their children that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Counting the number of people lined up and ready to go through the gate and comparing it to the number of available seats is not rocket science.

Further, once the airline scans a passenger’s boarding pass and allows the passenger to get onto the plane, I think it is only common sense and courtesy to conclude that the airline has committed to allowing that passenger to travel on that plane to his or her destination.

In this case, United Airlines apparently had employees who needed to get on the flight in order to make it to their next assignments. This makes the situation an even worse blemish on United Airline’s reputation.

United Airlines should be able to have its personnel in position for work assignments without passengers having to pay the price. If you ran a restaurant and were short wait staff one evening, would you force customers to start waiting tables?

I’m relatively confident that United Airlines could have rounded up staff to substitute for the delayed crew or put its employees on another airline. But even if they couldn’t and the situation caused a flight delay, at least the passengers on that flight could be given a more timely warning.

Social media

Finally, this incident again puts the focus on the power of social media. Let me go back to my last point, because it highlights the dilemma. I said that in this case, delaying all of the passengers on a future flight would be better than delaying a few passengers on the first flight.

Isn’t it better to inconvenience the fewest number of customers when you’re in what is essentially a no-win situation?

That is, of course, a judgment call, but you need to consider the time element and the social media aspects of the situation:

  • When customers are given time to adjust to problems, it generally diffuses their anger.
  • When customers are given no time to adjust to problems, it intensifies their anger. (United Airlines said the passenger was “belligerent.” That could be true, but if it is, it’s because of United’s mismanagement. We all have our breaking points.)
  • When the anger of customers is intensified, it makes the situation ripe for becoming a social media event.

For better or for worse, social media is the great equalizer between a global corporation like United Airlines and the passenger in seat 24B.

United Airlines has stood behind its employees, and in many ways I agree with that. Unless some employees were acting counter to United Airline policy and training, it wasn’t their fault. The fault lies with leadership.

These kinds of situations can be avoided if you exercise common sense, common courtesy, and understand that when there is a price to be paid for an unfortunate situation, your company should pay the price, not your customer.

Image: United Airlines – N227UA – Boeing 777-200 – San Francisco International Airport-0378.jpg, © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)