At every point in the recent United Airlines debacle, people were following policies. Policies that had no flexibility, treated people like cargo to be displaced and sent later, and made physically dragging a passenger off the plane seem like a reasonable response to him refusing to give up his seat.
And while we can just sit in the coliseum of public opinion on social media and enjoy the hashtag frenzy, it’s worth taking the time to get below the easy zingers and look at how the hell this happened in the first place. Because the wheels were in motion long before four crew members stepped up to the counter and asked for seats.
Let’s work backwards from the tone deaf media statement by the chief executive, which failed to take responsibility, made the airline the injured party and turned the term “re-allocate” an instant social media meme.
Next rung down the ladder of bad decisions was airport security, who escalated the situation. Continuing down, there was the decision to call security rather than accepting the doctor’s reasons and trying to find another passenger to take the voucher deal. Then to the decision to try and accommodate the flight crew even though the flight was already fully seated.
Stepping down off the visible rungs, we get to the schedule and seating algorithms that are designed to ensure planes fly as full as possible at all times, and which allow overbooking flights to offset for no-show passengers.
Add to the list the deliberately misleading booking processes where passengers think they are buying a seat on a flight at a particular time — an expectation reinforced by online systems that let you choose your seat and provide confirmation. In reality, passengers are only buying a journey from point A to point B (seriously read the terms and conditions of your next airline ticket). Most of the time it works out okay. Not this time.
Influencing and shaping all these decisions is the culture of the organisation. Because all along the way, people could have made different decisions, especially those directly involved on that flight. But they didn’t feel they had permission to do it or didn’t want to try.
No one got up that morning and said, “I’m going to get a passenger dragged off a flight today”. But the conditions that led to it happening were already in place. All that was needed was a trigger — which brings us back to the crew members stepping up to the counter.
SMEs have an advantage in situations like this. Without the scale and distance large corporations operate under, policies and processes are rarely so inflexible they can’t be bent should customers, or circumstances demand. And if the person on the spot doesn’t have permission to handle an issue, the gap between them and someone who can make the call is usually only a walk across the office or phone call away.
But don’t be lulled into complacency by the impact and scale of this example. The complex interrelated conditions at play in this case can and do exist everywhere. And okay, the resulting situations happen without the social media and legal blowback. But why risk it at all?
Don’t take things like policies for granted. Your brand is built one action and decision at a time and destroyed the same way.
United will recover — its share price has already mostly rebounded. In a few weeks once the story falls off the front pages passengers will come back, trading their misgivings for a convenient itinerary or price. But in the ongoing evolution of the brand, this is now part of who United Airlines is.
And as I look over the ramifications, I wonder if the chief executive and board think the price of four seats was a good trade for that brand.
See you next week.