Turbulence Subsiding, but the Seatbelt Sign Remains On for United

While I’d like to take credit for the full-page ads United Airlines finally was able to publish in many of the Top 10 Daily Newspapers yesterday, and for the eMail I received about the same time from CEO Oscar Munoz, it would be a bit of hubris for me to think my blog post from April 15th catalyzed these actions.

It is interesting to note, however, that apparently social keyword trackers led visitors from united.com IP addresses to scan our blog according to our logs, but to draw an intended connection would require me to put on my fashionable tin-foil hat.  So, I’ll leave that as “co-inky dinky.”  And that is not the point here anyway.

Now, some have complained it took United two weeks to publish this Ad. Well, hang on. While I myself demanded back on the 15th that United should have moved more quickly, I do need to acknowledge here that making changes inside an organization the size of United Continental Holdings requires lots of moving parts—legal, marketing, PR, customer service, plus all of the review, approval and sign-offs.  After all, the worst possible stumble would be to put out the letter without the infrastructure in place to support the pronouncements.

So all that noted, the most important thing I can say now is, “Thank you, United, for taking the actions you have announced and for promising to do more.”  Now (to borrow another brand’s maxim), “just do it” ...because actions do speak louder than words.

Here’s our critique of the actions United announced yesterday:

1.    Your promise to not use law enforcement to remove customers from flights and not ask a customer to give up their seat once on board a flight is laudable; but honestly, this should have always been the case (outside of passenger safety issues and criminal incidents of which Dr. Dao were neither.). 

2.    I remain a bit irked that in Munoz’s NBC interview with Anchor Lester Holt he blamed the incident on a “system failure.”  Wait. What?  Sure, “systems” comprise people, process, platform, policies and the like, but that was a bit too much passing the buck to the machine. Are you insinuating that your gate agents and attendants are merely robots of protocol?  The buck stops with you, sir.

3.    Increasing the incentive for voluntary re-booking to $10K matches your competition; a good move but one you could not afford to avoid – on April 10th Delta announced they increased their incentive for voluntary re-booking to $9,995. OK; now up the ante and offer something original.

4.    Having a dedicated team to find alternative travel options for customers who give up their seat should already be a part of customer service. When a paying customer voluntarily makes things easier for United, that customer should be given all the help needed to find and book an alternative flight or secure an alternative method to get to their final destination, and if they can’t make certain you have a block of rooms at the nearest hotel on retainer for these situations.  To be sure, the bulk of your revenue is business travelers—not exactly those on holiday where an extra day to get home is no big deal and worth a few dollars.  Dollars lost for that customer (whose already paying top dollar for your service) could likely outstrip your compensatory offer up to $10K.

5.    Requiring crew to book their flight travel for work purposes at least 60 minutes prior to flight departure is a great, but I understand from a United concierge that in fact, most crew typically know their schedules at least 12 hours in advance.  Sure, those on-call deadheading may have tighter windows to active duty, and they probably should take jump seats (or better hold out 3 seats in the back of the plane on segments that tend to experience lots of crew transfers.) Requiring re-positioned crew to book their work travel on receipt of their flight schedule should be standard procedure—actually the system should book for it for them as part of their assignment.

6.    Providing more training for front line employees is obvious; in fact requiring periodic review courses should be standard.

7.    I applaud United for exploring how they can leverage technology to gauge a traveler’s interest in taking an alternative flight at check-in. We suggest taking it further. United should have more transparency in the booking process, letting the traveler know how many seats have been sold, giving the traveler the opportunity to choose if they want to “roll the dice” on an overbooked flight, or opt for an alternative flight. Transparency in process typically galvanizes relationships (your competition refers to it astransfarency”). And in fact, speaking of fares, fare rates should change as the flight books up; purchases of seats on overbooked flights should be priced according to the historical risk of a customer being bumped or re-booked.  The airfare calculators online are very advanced today dynamically changing fares based on a number of variables is now standard and we witness it all the time.  So factor in overbooking, price accordingly, and let the customer decide (and even be compensated on the spot in terms of a discounted fare) if they wish to bear the risk of purchasing a seat on an overbooked flight.

8.    Great, you’ve evaluated your overbooking policy and have made changes. Congratulations, but see my comment above for additional suggestions about a customer-centric transparent approach to selling overbooked flights.

9.    Kudos to United for recognizing they need to empower their employees to “resolve customer service issues in the moment” and for planning to roll out technology to support this need. We encourage the Development Team to recognize not every situation is the same and some issues deserve more than a travel or mileage credit, or a meal or hotel voucher. We encourage the Development Team to be customer-centric when thinking about the types of compensation that may be required to adequately resolve the customer’s issue. In the era of big data, noting dates, holidays, travel loads due to school breaks, route demand, weather conditions (especially), and other factors and data points is easier than ever and can make for a much more customer-centric experience. We also encourage the Development Team to read our blog post Customer Focus vs. Customer-Centric

10. I'm pleased you will be implementing policies to “reduce the red tape on lost bags”, but if you lost my bag and give up trying to find it (or make me wait while you search for weeks) you should make it easy for me to be reimbursed when its decided the bag has permanently disappeared to wherever 1/2 of my husband's socks have also wandered off.  The C[IQ] team and I applaud the individual(s) who pushed for a minimum reimbursement of $1,500 for a permanently lost bag; let’s hope the process and paperwork is easy if the value of my bag and its contents is more than $1,500.

In short, it would appear United understands the gravity of its grievous error, and that it will be a long-term blemish on the brand.  These steps are a start, but until United Continental Holdings figures out the difference between customer-focused and customer-centric, and develops and implements a brand holistic customer-centric mindset at all touch points (physical and digital; and fancy Apps for ticket administration and entertainment are not what we're referring to), the chance for bumps and turbulence in the customer relationship (i.e., brand management) will continue and will be felt on the ledgers.

Strap in and cover your drink glass.