United’s Customer Service Fiasco

One of my all-time favorite television programs is The Andy Griffith Show.

Don Knotts brilliantly portrayed the nervous, by-the-book Deputy Barney Fife. A number of plots in the show’s early years went like this: Deputy Barney used his authority to enforce the letter of the law, creating sticky and frequently hilarious situations. Sheriff Andy Taylor would intervene, to Barney’s initial dismay, counteracting his deputy’s orders for the benefit of those caught up in the mishap.

If I had my way, these plots would be required viewing for United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz.

United needed to clear four seats on a flight to Louisville, Ky. from Chicago O’Hare. The seats were needed to transfer a new United crew for a Louisville-based flight.

This is an ugly task: replace four paying customers with four of your own employees, and make these changes on the plane where everyone already had been boarded.

This situation has trouble written all over it, and one would think the airline proceeds with extreme caution and understanding. Instead, here’s what happened: The next flight to Louisville was nearly 24 hours in the future, so United offered $400 and a free hotel room in exchange for vacating the seat. No takers. They upped the dollar value of this offer to $800. Still no one interested.

Thus began the dreaded involuntary bumping. Three of the four passengers left the plane without incident, but the fourth, a Kentucky physician, refused to budge.

69-year-old David Dao insisted he had patients to see the next day, and getting home was a priority. His refusal led to a call from the United crew to airport security. The result was a violent, ugly scene captured on a passenger’s smartphone video that has gone viral. Video shows Dao’s face bloodied, and it shows security dragging him down the aisle and out of the plane as men, women and children watched.

Millions of outraged social media users vowed never to fly United again. Comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel had a field day. An online contest popped up, soliciting new United Airlines slogans.

As some laughed, many others saw this as a sad, completely avoidable event.  These observers were infuriated by the way United forged ahead with such heavy-handed tactics.

What many did not understand is that everything United did was within the letter of the law.

Airlines are allowed to overbook flights and bump paying passengers. If they wind up with too few seats, they must ask for volunteers who are willing to be bumped to another flight. After that, they are permitted to involuntarily bump passengers, even those who have been ticketed and seated in the cabin.

Airline crews also have the power to determine who will fly and who will leave the plane. They work with airport security to remove passengers who could pose an annoyance or threat in a confined space. I have no quarrel with this policy. In fact, if it is ever reversed, I’ll trade airline tickets for a cabin on a ship or train.

The problem is that United, like fictional Barney Fife, fails miserably at finding solutions rooted in customer service, adhering instead to a rigid legalism.

The latest J.D Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study puts United at the bottom of the rankings for traditional carriers, the same position it ranked the previous year.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik poses the hypothesis that United employees who deal directly with travelers might not have the authority to resolve problems. These employees, often at the bottom of the corporate food chain, might fear losing their jobs far more than the loss of a customer or the threat of a public relations disaster. In light of that fear, they will cite chapter and verse from the contract of carriage, no matter the costs.

Hiltzik points to Muñoz’s initial internal memo on the Dao matter. It wasn’t a pledge to serve the flying public and an outright apology. Instead, Muñoz observed that the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Perhaps under the airline’s culture, they indeed had “no choice.”

It took a third statement from the CEO to finally produce something resembling an appropriate apology — a statement crafted (finally) with the paying public in mind.

The impending investigation and litigation will uncover the details of this ill-fated, involuntary bump of a paying passenger. In retrospect, an offer of $2,000 to take that next-day flight might have saved the airline millions.

But who has the authority to authorize that kind of incentive?

United and other airlines would do well to change their corporate cultures and empower people who deal directly with the flying public. Give them the latitude to put an end to these situations quickly and, if necessary, outside of the letter of the contract of carriage.

This would allow airlines in potentially damaging moments to, as Barney Fife would say, “nip it in the bud” and end the threat. Sheriff Andy Taylor would grin and nod his approval.

In an industry heavily dependent on repeat customers, it also would make good business sense.