I make my living dealing with corporate crises, and I can tell you that a crisis caused by human error carries its own particular baggage. In the case of a nuclear power plant crisis, or deaths caused by eating contaminated hamburgers, products that have intentionally been tampered with, or massive oil spills in pristine waters – and I’ve handled them all – once the remedial fix is in place, the crisis communications goal is to persuade the public that all is well once again and set out to win back the public’s trust. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, but at least there is an idea of what needs to happen.
In the case of United Airlines’ current troubles, it was caused exclusively by human stupidity and hubris. There was no mechanical problem that caught the executives by surprise. Three airport policemen were summoned by United’s gate personnel to forcibly remove a passenger who refused to vacate his seat. (Click Here to see the disturbing video). And why was that seat needed? Because United had oversold the flight and a “dead-heading” flight crew from another airline had to get to their next airport. (I have friends who are pilots and when they “dead-head,” they can only do so if seats are available, so I don’t know exactly what happened here.)
In many ways, it is harder to manage this type of crisis, because what do you do to convince your public that the crisis is over? Here are some starter thoughts:
The CEO has to go, or in United-speak, he needs to be re-accommodated. When the crisis was unfolding and video of the hapless passenger being dragged down the aisle was going viral, it took CEO Oscar Munoz three times to finally make a coherent statement of apology. His first swing and a miss was when he praised his employees and stated that he proudly stood behind them, and used the unfortunate phrase about having to re-accommodate that passenger. (That’s almost as bad as “alternative facts.”)
All passengers on that flight should get full refunds (that may be in the works already), as well as vouchers for future flights.
United goes very public with full-throated apologies in all media.
The next CEO must be crisis media-trained. In a TV interview, Munoz was asked point blank if the passenger had done anything wrong and Munoz hesitated far too long – you could almost see the wheels spinning as he was trying to remember what his handlers had told him – before he said No. The passenger did nothing wrong, but that needlessly painful pause spoke volumes. This is a company that still does not get it.
A United Passenger Bill of Rights – one that heavily favors the passenger – is created and well-publicized. For example, a ticket sold becomes a binding contract. On the other hand, passengers get charged the ticket price for arbitrarily missing flights.
United becomes more passenger-friendly, eliminating baggage fees and fees for switching flights, etc. – sort of a nostalgic return to the golden age of flying.
Re-train all personnel, from the C-Suite on down.
No one but airline personnel should ever be permitted on the plane unless it’s a matter of safety. Sending armed police onto a plane is tantamount to the tactics of a police state.
Plus, it is traumatic to other passengers. Psychological counseling should be made available to all passengers and personnel who request it.
As a gesture of good will, reduce all fares for a limited period of time.
Re-introduce meal service on longer flights.
The entire airline industry has been under fire for some time about overcrowded flights, late flights and missed connections, baggage fees, lack of once basic services, being charged for a blanket or pillow, and so many other grievances. Now more than ever, United needs to distinguish itself from its competitors by showing it is once again on the side of its customers.
This crisis will pass. But United can take many proactive steps to make it pass more quickly.