Day 6

United Airlines: Why it's so hard to be less awful

This week, United Airlines took a public relations beating after it forcibly removed a customer from one of its planes. This isn't the company's first misstep. A year ago, Bloomberg writer Drake Bennett wrote a piece called "United's Quest To Be Less Awful." He explains why United just can't seem to get it together.
Protesters express their outrage over the treatment of Dr. David Dao, who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

by Brent Bambury

In October 2015, D'Arcee Neal, a 29-year-old man with cerebral palsy, had just completed a five-hour fight.

He waited 15 minutes for the plane to clear so a special wheelchair could be brought on board. Then he had to wait for the wheelchair.

Finally, a half hour after the flight had docked, desperately needing to use the bathroom, Neal eased himself out of plane's seat and crawled up the aisle.

Flight attendants looked on.

"I expected them to ask to assist me, but they just stared," he told CNN.

Guess which airline it was.

United Airlines is in serious trouble after dragging a passenger off one of its planes to give his seat to a United employee. (cbc.ca)

                   

United's bad night

This week, another United passenger exited a plane in perhaps an even more humiliating way.

On Sunday, videos emerged of a bloodied, screaming, and disoriented man named David Dao being forcibly removed from a seat he paid for on a flight to Louisville.

There was no corporate empathy for Dao as he was manhandled from the plane waiting at the gate, and visibly injured in the act. No crew intervened.

The videos quickly went viral. Then, United made things even worse.

"I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers," was the initial, widely mocked public statement from United chief executive Oscar Munoz.

In an additional memo praising his staff, Munoz claimed — apparently falsely — that Dao was "disruptive and belligerent."

Every airline has its horror stories, of course... but United has proved an industry leader.- Drake Bennett

But while United may have failed to feel Dao's pain, it was being felt around the world as the videos found a wide and sympathetic audience.

"Even our president last night said that was horrible," Dao's lawyer pointed out as he laid the groundwork for what will likely be a lucrative lawsuit.

Munoz ultimately became more empathetic, apologizing and promising amends, as the company finally reverted to the crisis management textbook on the same day United's stock lost $250 million.

"Part of what was surprising to me — about not only the incident, but the company's really ham-fisted response to it — is that Munoz, by all accounts, is a very adept communicator, both with the people who work at United and with their customers," Drake Bennett tells me on Day 6.

Bennett, a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, has been tracking United's misfortunes for a while.

His article, "United's Quest to be Less Awful," appeared in Jan. 2016.

Bennett says the company was actually improving before things blew up on Sunday, and he's surprised Munoz got so much wrong.

"Unlike his predecessor Jeff Smisek, (Munoz) was a real people person and had this real awareness of how things play to the larger public."

"So it's particularly odd that he bungled this so badly."

Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport on April 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

                 

A bad record in a tough business

Bennett's article describes a company struggling with measurable customer and staff dissatisfaction, a poor performance when it comes to canceling flights and avoiding delays, and a tendency to have high-profile gaffes — like the incident in March when a crew refused to let two girls board a flight because they were wearing leggings.

"Every airline has its horror stories, of course," Bennett writes, "But United has proved an industry leader."

The good news for United is, in spite of all that, they've been improving. 

"If you look at some of the numbers," Bennett tells me, "They had been doing much better over the past year in terms of things like lost bags or delayed flights or bumped passengers."

He says United has made a marked improvement in service since they merged with Continental in 2010.

"Even in terms of involuntarily denying people seats on planes, they're kind of in the middle of the pack. They're not particularly bad about it. You know, other airlines do similar things. I haven't heard of many instances where it escalated quite to this degree, but it's not uncommon for people to be taken off the plane voluntarily."

"Obviously it just takes one incident like this to sort of sear in the minds of the public a very different picture."

United Airlines has been dealing with one PR nightmare after another. (Shutterstock / Vytautas Kielaiti)

                 

Why this gaffe won't upend the company

In spite of the terrible publicity, the loss of stock value, and the multi-million dollar settlement United will likely pay to David Dao, Bennett says the company will survive.

Consumers can't avoid United even if they wanted to.

"There's been a lot of consolidation, so people don't have a lot of options, especially if you don't live in a major hub. You kind of just have to fly the airline that happens to fly to your area."

"That's one of the ramifications of having not a lot of competition in an industry; the companies in the industry don't necessarily pay the consequences for poor performance."

"There's been scandals like this before — these are social media blow ups — and you know, this is a worse one than anything I've seen."

"But I think, you know, partly for the reasons we were just discussing there's not a lot of options out there."

A United Airlines plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. (File Photo/David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

Bennett points out that a bad company can make more mistakes when their competition isn't that much better.

"Obviously this is an unforgiving, unforgivable treatment of a United customer. But overall, they are getting better at this kind of thing... at the same time, they're getting better compared with their peers in an industry that has by all accounts pretty poor customer service. And I do think that comes back to at least in part a lack of competition."

If there is competition in the airline industry, it's a competition to deliver the cheapest service with the fewest perks — and that explains why consumers have submitted to so many humiliations.

In that scenario, David Dao is the exception: The person who finally decided they wouldn't play along.

I ask Bennett if the metric in measuring an airline's performance should ultimately be satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

"I think people have stories just about flying any airline," Drake Bennett says.  "And so I think it's like the cable industry, it's one where people tend to have a lot of bad experiences that they love sharing with journalists."

On Thursday, United Airlines stock closed just less than a dollar lower than where it was when the week began.

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Drake Bennett, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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