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United We Stand, Divided Will Be Public Opinion
I flew with United Airlines recently.
Don’t worry, I’m OK.
In fact, the flight was fine, the service excellent and there were absolutely no complaints from me. There was a tiny glimpse of what lay ahead though when the passenger behind my wife made a huge fuss that my wife [quote] ‘had put her seat back so she couldn’t watch the telly properly’.
She got short shrift from a stewardess who told her to either move seat or pay for a first class ticket; pointing out that putting your seat back was every passengers right. We were pleased with her intervention and handling of it but we did also see a slightly darker side to the customer service interactions on board. Had I instead, been dragged off unconscious by three burly security guards, I might have had a different view.
You see what I did there? I made a joke about the airline, implying that their handling of a ‘passenger’ earlier this week was not good (it may well be the case but that’s not the point). I’m far from the only one.
There are online clips from the movie Airplane (with a queue of people waiting to beat a passenger with baseball bats, wrenches, boxing gloves etc) that say it’s the airline’s new training video. There was a spoof news article that said that United had won the contract to remove President Assad from Syria ‘by his arms’. It was a satirist’s dream. Cartoonists were in HB pencil heaven and on a serious note, at least a billion dollars was wiped from the company’s share price.
And there is plenty of fire to go with the smoke. The CEO of United has said it will never happen again. The staff involved have been placed on leave and all other customers on the flight are to be refunded. 150,000 people have called for the CEO to resign and The White House referred to the incident as ‘troubling’ in the week they dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in history.
What I have done that a lot of the others haven’t is added some balance to the facts straight away. Because even as the initial story broke, corporations such as the BBC were showing the footage of the passenger being dragged off whilst fellow passengers screamed. But they didn’t show other footage that was also available, for instance of the man going back onto the plane after initially leaving.
The passenger concerned, through his lawyer, has said he needs reconstructive surgery and that his experience was ‘worse than the one he had in the Vietnam war during the Fall of Saigon’. He also claimed to have no memory of going back on the plane and apparently has a string of convictions. Relevant? Does it matter? The point is that every single media outlet painted one picture and one picture only of this incident, refusing at any point to even risk any other facts that might get in the way of a good story. The media’s role, supposedly impartial but definitely factual and hopefully balanced, should be questioned here as well.
But, as is often the case in this kind of incident, there are very few winners in the story; no one comes out covering themsleves in much glory and the victim’s lawyer should go straight into that box too.
But the biggest loser is United; have no doubt about that. And rightly so.
Overbooking is a common practice and almost always sorted at the gate with the payment of compensation (some would say bribes) to passengers to take the next flight instead. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but the airlines, for financial reasons, bet on a number of ‘no shows’ with at least one, British Airways, admitting it has overbooked around half a million seats in a single year. Because the volunteer or bribery methods nearly always work, there is little need to resort to randomly selecting passengers to ‘bump’ off a flight although it does happen; and normally without this kind of reaction.
However, once they reached the point of forcibly taking people off the aircraft, the chances of a problem escalated significantly and in the world of the camera phone, so did the chances of this becoming a global, viral story very quickly. And United should have known that. It’s not necessarily right but it is symptomatic of the world we live in where opinion on Twitter is given more credence than any number of other pieces of information.
It also seems that airline customer service issues have been allowed to become law enforcement issues. There are lots of reports suggesting that talking back to a member of staff has become a crime, and the power has been wielded too far and too wide. No one wants a disruptive person on a flight, but no one wants to be threatened with police action if they question a flight attendant either. Threatening behaviour – by passengers or crew – simply cannot be the best way to deal with this. The airlines and passengers have enough trouble looking out for the real threats that the post-9/11 world has given us.
United have said they’ve tried to ‘reach out’ (aka contact) to the passenger but he has claimed to have not heard from them. Another avoidable mistake – they should have made that their top priority and the CEO should have been sitting down over a cup of tea with them the next day. To let the best part of a week pass without a face-to-face conversation was leaving a void that any legal team worth their salt were going to dive right into.
This isn’t a new phenomenon either. This is the United Airlines that, in the not too distant past, broke a guitar, remember, and also banned a passenger from wearing leggings much more recently if the news articles are to be believed.
Regardless of who was in the right or wrong in this episode, there are a number of things that United could have done to avoid this and the subsequent fall out. The legalities and guidelines aside, there are ways to handle situations that don’t get a billion internet hits and everyone on the planet talking about it.
This is one case they didn’t need to reach the court of public – or media – opinion.
The customer might not always be right; but they don’t need to be knocked out and dragged away either way.
The CSN Blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation.