Aviation is all about lessons learned. That’s not just nice talk, its the reason millions of people get on airplanes and travel around the world in near perfect safety. Airlines make a big effort to learn from mistakes. So just what is up with United Airlines, which just can’t get a handle on customer service despite the master class it gets each time it mishandles its image by manhandling its passengers?
On Sunday, an unidentified traveler was hauled off a United flight from Chicago to Louisville when he refused to give up his seat so airline employees could get to work. Does anyone else see the irony here? Just two weeks ago, United infuriated millennials by enforcing a no-legging dress code on people flying on employee passes. The rule, which many applaud including me, has this goal; people representing the airline should present their best selves to the public.
Best self be damned, on Sunday four United employees needed to be on Flight 3411 but were foiled when none of the fare-paying passengers agreed to give up their seats. Through some random selection the airline has yet to describe, gate agents approached four travelers with the bad news that they were not going to be able to remain on the flight.
One, who identified himself as a physician who needed to be back at work on Monday to see patients did not go unwillingly. Law enforcement arrived and in the ensuing tussle, the doctor got a bloody knock on the head when he was tossed onto the armrest of a nearby seat.
This all happened around 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon Sunday. Not unexpectedly it was trending by dinnertime. And yet United didn’t weigh in for nearly 20 hours, when airline CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement saying the event was upsetting to all of us and promising “a sense of urgency” in figuring out what happened.
I’m all for not rushing to judgment but holy smokes, how hard is it for an airline to say “I’m sorry.”
In case after case, and even when the airline has a defensible position, United could not be slower to react or a more effective contributor to its own sorry reputation. This dates back at least to 2008 when I wrote for The New York Times about performer Dave Carroll, whose guitar was roughed up in a similar fashion by baggage handlers in Chicago.
Rather than reimburse the $1200 for his broken instrument, United allowed the singer/songwriter to savage it in a series of three, count ’em three music videos that turned the Canadian into the airline’s anti-brand ambassador. His hysterical first effort, United Breaks Guitars has been viewed 16 million times.
Whether the doctor on Sunday’s United flight, who needed his own physician by the time somebody wised up and allowed him to reclaim his seat on the flight, chooses to make light of his battering remains to be seen. Somehow, I doubt it.
As my former boss, aviation lawyer Jim Kreindler told me this morning, that traveler has a heck of a lawsuit. (Read more of his comments here.)
Jay Leve, a Flying Lessons reader, however, has taken a distinctly Dave Carroll-like approach to this latest act of corporate masochism by sending to me and allowing me to share with you, an open letter to Oscar Munoz.
The Chief Executive Officer’s position at United Airlines is currently overbooked. Please surrender your seat, today, Monday 04/10/17, or I will forcibly remove you (using the power of public opinion and shareholder revolt).
I have asked my computer to select 3 other members of the UAL Board of Directors, who must also surrender their seats due to overbooking.
My computer has selected:
1. Mr. David Vitale
2. Mr. Robert Milton
3. Mr. Todd Insler
That brings the total to 4.
We cannot push back until you and these 3 members of the Board of Directors have surrendered your seats.
Tick tock, sir.
Many of us have tight connections.
Jay H Leve