Commentary

United Settles With Passenger And Proclaims A Changed Culture

While separately averring “actions speak loader than words,” United Airlines yesterday reached a financial settlement with the passenger who was manhandled earlier this month. It also announced a redefinition of “what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society” in an email to MileagePlus customers and a similar full-page ad in yesterday’s Washington Post. Both were signed “Oscar” by CEO Oscar Munoz who, it was announced last Friday, will not become the airline’s chairman next year, as had been planned.

“David Dao, the doctor who was seen being dragged off a United Airlines jet this month in videos that sparked widespread outrage, has reached a settlement with the airline,” Daniel Victor and Christopher Drew report in the New York Times

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“Mr. Munoz said he was going to do the right thing, and he has,” Thomas A. Demetrio, one of Dr. Dao’s lawyers, said. “In addition, United has taken full responsibility for what happened on Flight 3411, without attempting to blame others, including the City of Chicago. For this acceptance of corporate accountability, United is to be applauded,” Victor and Drew report.

The amount of the settlement with Dr. David Dao — “or ‘Dao Jones’ as United now refers to him,” quipped one widely retweeted tweet — is confidential. 

“Coming just days after United suffered another social media furor for barring employees’ teenage girls from a flight because their leggings didn't fit a dress code, both incidents helped harden an image of the airline as a rules-bound hierarchy, one reinforced by a Wall Street Journalstory about its by-the-book culture,” Jena McGregor writes in the Washington Post.

“This is the second example of the application of a policy seeming to be missing the element of common sense,” Carreen Winters, who leads the corporate reputation practice at the public relations firm MWW, said of the dragging fiasco earlier this month, McGregor continues. “In any company with a heavy number of customer contact jobs, employees need to be empowered.”

With the 10 policy changes United unveiled in its ad, email and a press release, “it is doing just that,” McGregor says.

“We can never say we are sorry enough for the shameful way one of our customers was treated aboard United’s flight 3411,” the copy in the ad begins. And the “10 substantial changes to how it flies, serves and respects its customers … are the result of United's thorough examination of its policies and procedures, and commitment to take action, in the wake of” that incident, the press release starts.

The top three bullet points United “commits to” are:

  • 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. 

Calm down now.

“If you’re suddenly hatching schemes to snare ten large 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,’” cautions Justin Bachman for Bloomberg before explaining how the “overbooking” game is rigged in favor of the house.

But $10Gs sounds good, right? Alas, as sincere and relatively rapid as United’s PR about-face has been after an initial disaster, social media will have its way.

“The response to the incident was full of trolls, and reactions to the ad have been no different. Many Twitter users are now bringing up the rabbit that died Wednesday on board a United flight,” reports Sage Lazarro for the Observer.

Oh, that. In case you’ve missed it, “Sunny,” a 10-month-old giant rabbit that reportedly was being delivered to a new celebrity owner, was found deceased in the cargo hold when the flight arrived at Chicago's O’Hare airport from London Heathrow, according to the BBC.

“United, which has had a torrid few weeks of bad publicity, said it was ‘saddened’ by Simon's death,” the BBC tells us, then reports that the 14 animal deaths on United flights in 2015, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures, represent “the highest rate seen on any U.S. airline.” In all, including nine injuries, “there were 2.37 incidents for every 10,000 animals transported during the period” by 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,” Munoz says in his email to customers

Lofty goals but, as Munoz surely knows by now, it will all be in the perception of the execution.

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