United chief: Our customers should be the focus of all we do [Updated]

The airline has announced a list of changes it’s making to regain consumers’ trust. Its CEO said: ‘Our policies got in the way of our values, and procedures interfered in doing what’s right.’


United Airline’s PR team probably needs a vacation.

The carrier was hit with heavy criticism for enforcing its dress code policy, and then it faced huge backlash after forcibly removing a passenger from a flight to make room for crew members.

Now, it’s looking to turn things around.

On Thursday, United issued a press release announcing “10 substantial changes to how it flies, serves and respects its customers.”

In it, the airline addressed overbooking, increased its compensation cap for bumped passengers to $10,000 and promised to curtail its dependence on law enforcement:

  • 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.

Chicago Business Journal reported that several of these commitments either have already been implemented or will be in place by the end of the month. United’s “no questions asked” lost luggage policy will also include a $1,500 reimbursement for bags that are permanently lost.

Chicago Business Journal’s Lewis Lazare wrote:

Though the report is short on some key details, it does provide the groundwork for what the carrier now says will be a concerted effort to earn back the flying public’s trust.

The airline’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, also issued a statement promising that United would become “a better, more customer-focused airline”:

Every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect. Two weeks ago, we failed to meet that standard and we profoundly apologize. However, actions speak louder than words. Today, we are taking concrete, meaningful action to make things right and ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: our policies got in the way of our values, and procedures interfered in doing what’s right. This is a turning point for all of us at United, and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline. Our customers should be at the center of everything we do, and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust.

Munoz’s recent apology differs strikingly from his previous mea culpa, which garnered the airline even more criticism.

PR pros might note the executive’s sincere tone, as well as the promise to take “concrete, meaningful action.” Corporate apologies do little to regain consumers’ trust, unless they are accompanied by a plan to fix the current problem.

Additional crises and image damage

United’s statement comes after two additional crises made headlines this week—a professional golfer’s broken clubs and the death of a rabbit.

On Monday, Matthew Goggin tweeted the following dig at United:

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that a 10-month-old, 3-foot-long rabbit was found dead in a United plane’s cargo hold after an international flight.

The BBC reported:

In a statement sent to the BBC, United said: “We were saddened to hear this news. The safety and well-being of all the animals that travel with us is of the utmost importance to United Airlines and our PetSafe team.

“We have been in contact with our customer and have offered assistance. We are reviewing this matter.”

Though the rabbit’s death isn’t provoking the outrage that the airline’s leggings policy or passenger removal incidents have, the BBC reported that United’s track record with animal injuries and deaths is the worst of any U.S. airline:

US Department of Transportation figures show that in 2015, the most recent data available, US airlines reported 35 animal deaths.

Of those, 14 deaths were on United flights, with a further nine creatures injured. Across the year, United carried 97,156 animals, meaning there were 2.37 incidents for every 10,000 animals transported during the period.

That was the highest rate seen on any US airline, according to the data.

It might seem like United’s image can’t get much worse, but even with that, it ranked No. 6 on a list of United States consumers’ favorite airlines.

Airfarewatchdog recently surveyed 1,300 travelers and found that although United had dropped a spot, low-budget airlines Spirit and Frontier were at the bottom. MarketWatch reported the entire list:

1. Southwest

2. Delta

3. American

4. Alaska

5. JetBlue

6. United

7. Virgin America

8. Frontier

9. Spirit

However, the survey might be more of a reflection on consumers’ negative perception of several airlines, rather than support for United.

“Our singular focus is on continuing to review and improve the broader customer experience,” a United spokesman told MarketWatch.

Might other airlines follow suit?

UPDATE: Hours after United announced new policies designed to stem the tide of criticism against its recent actions, the attorney for Dr. David Dao announced that a settlement had been reached.

NBC News reported:

Dao reached an “amicable settlement” with the airline for the injuries he received as result of the April 9 incident, which is attorney said included two lost teeth, a broken nose and a “significant” concussion. The amount of the settlement would remain undisclosed, according to the terms of the settlement, Dao’s attorney said in a statement.

United shared a full report of its investigation and announced widespread changes to prevent a similar incident in the future, but Twitter users are still lashing out at the airline’s slow response to the crisis and at its initial corporate response.

United opened its report with the following promise to consumers:

We can never apologize enough for what occurred and for our initial response that followed. United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened. The intention of this report is to communicate concrete and meaningful actions that will avoid putting our customers, employees and partners into impossible situations. Our goal is to reduce incidents of involuntary denial of boarding to as close to zero as possible and become a more customer-focused airline. And this is just the beginning of our commitment to you.

Our entire company is dedicated to making this right, working harder than ever to serve you and live up to our shared purpose and values of making decisions with empathy, respecting every voice and delivering what you expect and deserve.

Though social media users are slow to forgive, Dao’s attorney said he and his client “applaud” the airline for its response.

The Washington Post reported:

“Both Dr. Dao and I applaud United for promptly addressing the many issues that have plagued passenger satisfaction in the arena of airline customer service,” Demetrio said Thursday. “All of its policy changes announced today are passenger friendly and are simple, commonsense decisions on United’s part to help minimize the stress involved in the flying experience. Dr. Dao is proud, despite his ordeal, to have played a role in spearheading these announced changes. And going forward, he hopes United takes the lead in inspiring the entire airline industry to supply passengers the dignity, respect and fairness we all deserve.”

(Image by Kentaro Iemoto via)

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