by Elaine Fogel

Is United’s Apology Enough or Do You Want More?

sorry

Last Thursday, I received an email from United Airline’s CEO, Oscar Munoz. The subject line? “Actions Speak Louder than Words.”

As you may know, United Airlines has been in deep doo-doo for an incident that occurred with Dr. David Dao. The airline reached a confidential settlement with the doctor and promised to change its ways. In addition, it is upping the incentive amount for voluntary rebooking, now making it the leader in this arena.

Here’s the complete email:

Dear Mrs. Fogel,

Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.

Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?

It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.

Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.

While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, “I fly United.”

Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.

We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.

With Great Gratitude,

Oscar Munoz
CEO
United Airlines

It sounds good, doesn’t it?

Additionally, United issued a press release on April 27, 2017 committing to the following:

  • Limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.
  • Not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.
  • Increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.
  • Establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions such as using nearby airports, other airlines or ground transportations to get customers to their final destination.
  • Ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure.
  • Provide employees with additional annual training.
  • Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans.
  • Reduce the amount of overbooking.
  • Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.
  • Eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a “no questions asked” policy on lost luggage.

“While several of these policies are effective immediately, others will be rolled out through the remainder of the year.”

Some people are skeptical. Justin Bachman of Bloomberg News believes, “You’re Never Going to Get $10,000 for Your United Airlines Seat.” In his article, Bachman writes:

If you’re suddenly hatching schemes to snare 10 large ones by purchasing a ticket on a peak Monday morning or Friday night flight, you may want to hold off. There is no ‘$10,000 jackpot’ at the airport waiting to be hit. Not really.”

Bachman says that neither Delta nor United is likely to dole out the maximum loot because they won’t need to. For one thing, “some amount greatly under $10,000 appears to be a suitable market price for an airline to free up whatever few odd seats it might need.”

Data shows that most bumped passengers “took an airline’s initial offers, not a more lucrative one that likely came when the airline was confronted by an indignant passenger whose seat was nicked against her will at the last minute.”

Overbooking is an airline tool to boost revenue, but it’s not a necessity; its costs will be very closed managed. That magical maximum payout? It’s more P.R. than promise—you’ll have a better shot at picking up $10,000 in Vegas,” adds Bachman.

My big question is: is this corporate PR rhetoric or will United truly change to a customer-first culture?

Changing any enterprise corporate culture takes more then a simple apology letter. It’s akin to turning a large ship around in the same time it takes to turn a rowboat.

It makes me wonder how Mr. Munoz plans to “put our customers at the center of everything we do,” especially when its communications department reports to HR and not directly to the CEO – a very atypical hierarchy.

It seems, intuitively, that the farther away from the [CEO] that the communications people are, the less likely they are in a crisis situation to be nimble and responsive,” said Lawrence Parnell, a former public relations executive and professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

And, what about employee empowerment? Can United’s planned employee app really work to directly compensate customers who have experienced poor service?

Customers want their problems resolved quickly without waiting for escalation to the next level of management and beyond. Nothing frustrates me more than talking to several company representatives about the same issue – explaining it again and again! Grrrr.

Brian Kropp, who leads the human resources practice for the consultancy CEB, is skeptical. Quoted in a recent Washington Post article, he said:

All too often, companies talk about ’empowerment’ but use it ambiguously, without giving people a say over something tangible: Money. In order to empower employees you need to be willing to give them control over budget and spending. You have to put money in their hands where they can actually make decisions.” 

In the same WP article, Ethan Burris, a professor at the University of Texas’s McCombs College of Business, adds:

“This isn’t just a matter of empowerment, it’s a matter of cultural change. And with a rules-based culture, saying ’empowerment’ is very counter-culture.”

The article suggests that changing a rules-based culture to one of employee empowerment takes more than an app.

Hiring and promoting people comfortable with a less by-the-book culture and offering training that helps them adjust to the new reality are both necessary,” adds Burris.

So, do you think United’s apology is enough? Do you trust that it will change its culture?

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