EDITORIAL: UAL denied boarding incident 'Worst PR disaster since Exxon Valdez'

By Kevin Mitchell
Chairman and founder, Business Travel Coalition

On Sunday, 69-year old David Dao, a pulmonologist, was selected for denied boarding on a United Airlines flight departing Chicago, Illinois for Louisville, Kentucky because the carrier needed seats for its crew. He was bleeding as horrified passengers watched as he was dragged down the aisle like an animal.

The United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) process to identify volunteers was poorly executed as more money should have been offered to induce volunteers. The process of removing the passenger was disgraceful. CEO Oscar Munoz wrote to employees placing blame on the customer stating he was “disruptive and belligerent.” This might be the worst public relations disaster since the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Importantly, to make matters even more outrageous, United Airlines apparently felt it was appropriate to treat a revenue-paying customer this way to clear a seat for a non-revenue employee. The airline’s message to the traveling public is loud and clear: We put the travel needs of our employees first, paying customers second.

BTC chairman and founder, Kevin Mitchell
Some of the world’s most customer-centric airlines include Air New Zealand, Azul, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Smile. Not in a million years would any of those airlines have treated a customer like United Airlines did, and in so doing, creating a multi-million dollar public relations catastrophe, and no doubt, an expensive lawsuit or out-of-court settlement. Unlike United Airlines, they get it: paying customers come first, second and third.

Such an outcome for the world’s best airlines would be light years away from their strategies, cultures and operations. Why? They are in business to make money in highly competitive markets. To achieve their goals they build their business models around an obsession with treating passengers - all passengers - as the highly valuable and valued guests that they are. That, in a nutshell, is what their brands are all about and they will safeguard them at any expense.

If United Airlines cared half as much about creating a brand that reflected a culture of service excellence and respect for customers, that onboard calamity would never have happened. Likewise, CEO Munoz, whom I recently complimented in an interview with Pulitzer Prize recipient David Cay Johnston, was tone deaf to his internal and external audiences. However, there really is little surprise in all of this.

Since the U.S. major network airlines secured their antitrust immunized global alliances, and engineered massive airline industry consolidation, their arrogance has known no bounds. They constantly seek to undermine their regulator, the U.S. Department of Transportation, just as they call on the U.S. State Department for protection from competition from best-in-class airlines in their scorched-earth war on U.S. Open Skies policy.

In that context, not only was United Airlines’ handling of the situation unsurprising, the customer did not have a fighting chance, and he’s not the one who caused the overbooking problem. He was not valued and not respected. Instead of this being a teachable moment for the major U.S. network carriers, it’s sadly only repeatable.

About BTC
Founded in 1994, the mission of Business Travel Coalition is to interpret industry and government policies and practices and provide a platform so that the managed travel community can influence issues of strategic importance to their organizations.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

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