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A Contrarian View on the United Airlines Customer Nightmare (We all have a role to play)

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D. | Apr 19, 2017 903 views 36 Comments

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I was going to write a blog about all the missteps involved in the United Airlines customer experience disaster. Then I started seeing an “abundance of critics” rushing out of the woodworks – some of whom clearly have never tried to help a company strike a balance between customer needs and profitability.

With all this angst about the state of United’s customer experience and the doomsday reporting about the “fatally flawed” nature of air travel in general, I was reminded of that classic line likely written by Charles Dudley Warner (but often attributed to Mark Twain), which essentially goes, “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” When it comes to the airline industry the weather, so to speak, is frighteningly challenging.

About 7 years ago, while working on my book The Zappos Experience, I remember talking to the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, about his company’s culture of customer experience excellence.

Tony said if you build a culture committed to, “wowing customers it doesn’t matter what you sell. In fact, I’ve often thought about opening an airline and transforming service in that industry.”



Later I posed the question of whether Zappos would start an airline to Tony’s longtime friend and then CFO of Zappos Alfred Lin. Alfred noted, “Tony thinks about starting an airline but I do my best to dissuade him because there are a lot less capital intensive and less regulated industries where we can make a difference and still make money.”

So how can both airline industry leaders and the rest of us (passengers) work together to create a more viable travel experience in a challenging industry? Let’s start with the part that is least comfortable to me, namely helping customers understand what they can take control over. Such things as…

  • Wanting it All: It has often been said that customers get the experience they deserve or pay for. This may be less true with airline travel since our choices are limited to a small number of carriers in an industry where the barriers to entry are great and flight paths are regulated by the FAA. That said, we as consumer’s, have to realize we can’t have it all unless we are willing to pay a “have it all” price. When I book on Southwest, I know I can’t get in the A boarding group unless I pay for it or unless I am a frequent flyer with them. That said, how much more would you pay for a ticket that guarantees you couldn’t be forced to yield your seat in an oversold situation? Until we are willing to pay for more…it is often difficult for brands to decide which of many customer “wants” they should actually invest in.
  • Not Understanding the Terms of Our Agreement:  (I’m as guilty as the next person on this one, so forgive me if I am preaching to myself.) When we make an online purchase and skip over the terms and conditions to click the buy button, we run the risk that we are making agreements that we will later complain about during the service delivery process. For example, most of us are reserving a seat on a plane subject to a number of conditions (arrival time at the gate, weather conditions, and even oversold situations). Later we have to consider the viability of our complaint when agreed upon circumstances surface. I liken that to people complaining about a president when they didn’t take the time to vote.
  • Thinking that Our Needs Are More Important than Everyone Else: In reality, I suspect that four people on that United Flight could have volunteered to change their travel arrangements with minimal impact, however, a number of people complained that four flight attendants were accommodated. In reality, that accomodation likely would have affected 200 plus passengers in the city where that flight crew was needed – thus creating cascading impact throughout the system. (I know, I know this was a last minute accomodation of the flight attendants and there were many factors at play but still, sometimes we have to think about the good of others.)

Now I can go back to where I spend most of my life which is trying to get business leaders not to blame the customer. Instead look for the levers that can drive customer value while still allowing the company to stay in business serving customers well into the future.

Onto the things that the airline industry can do and specifically what United needs to do going forward:

  • Apologize and don’t equivocate. Say you’re sorry for the way things were handled. Make no excuses, assure passengers that this situation will not be tolerated. Define the way by which you will address this breakdown through process, people, and technology in the days, weeks, and years ahead. Treat your customers as you would want your family treated!
  • Never let more people on the plane than you have seats for. If you are in an oversold situation in the boarding area, resolve the situation in the boarding area. Once you let passengers assume a seat, “oversold” is not a condition that allows you to violate your contract to transport them. As Delta did, beef up the compensation to induce passengers to disrupt their travel voluntarily when circumstances necessitate.
  • Appreciate the impact of customer care. As limited as choices may be for preferred carriers, preferred travel times and preferred routes, realize that airline passengers can churn (I suspect United will experience a meaningful backlash in passenger volume – at least over the short-term) but more importantly brand equity, enterprise value, customer perception, and future business partnerships are all be affected by a significant customer failure followed by a cascade of PR blunders.

Finally, where can we look for substantial changes in airline travel? I am convinced that customer-centric brands with strong service cultures like Southwest, Virgin, and Jet Blue will make incremental progress as industry insiders. At the same time, I am hoping that customer centric brands (not in airline travel per se) will enter the fray. I doubt Zappos will make the move, but I am watching Airbnb to see if they will literally take to the “air” as they continue to champion and innovate end-to-end travel experiences.

For now the United experience should be a wake-up call – not only in our lives as savvy travel passengers but also as providers of customer experiences in the businesses’ where we work and in the brand’s we steward.

How can we prevent a “United-type” incident from occurring, let alone going viral under our watch?

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36 Responses to A Contrarian View on the United Airlines Customer Nightmare (We all have a role to play)

  1. else-marie April 20, 2017 at 6:17 am (2 comments) #

    Indeed everybody jumped to crucify United. I think that any business, but especially airlines – or any transportation service – should have scenarios ready for whenever an unwanted situation occurs. Like you said this should have been handled in the boarding area.
    Maybe instead of calling passengers via the intercom, they could have approached a few passengers personally and would then have had a better response. When in a group people tend to look at each other an wait for others people responses.
    Businesses should be aware of the fact that the customer journey nowadays end on social media, so they should be prepared how to handle possible negative publicity too

  2. Michael Lowenstein April 20, 2017 at 6:33 am (1320 comments) #

    While I’m in agreement with what airlines like Singapore, Virgin, JetBlue, and Southwest do to deliver stakeholder-related value and, apart from holacracy, what Tony Hsieh has created at Zappos, you can label me as a United critic who has come out of the woodwork.

    I’m also in agreement with the overarching concept that customer value delivery should be balanced with profitability. Finally, I’m fully in agreement with your suggestions for the airline industry. But, whether it is gate personnel refusing to let passengers board because of a dress issue or publicly manhandling a passenger because he wouldn’t give up his seat to accommodate crew logistics, United isn’t even demonstrating much in the way of basic customer need and relationship consideration.

    Apart from public contrition, United has shown little sensitivity or willingness to modify its culture or processes to provide greater passenger value – going back to the ‘United Breaks Guitars’ incident – and it was inevitable that their value delivery dirty laundry would be exposed. If you’ve flown United with any frequency, it’s pretty evident.

  3. Joseph Michelli April 20, 2017 at 6:33 am (62 comments) #

    else-marie – What astute observations! I particularly like the contingency scenarios, the personal approach (averting the “someone else will do it” crowd response) and the observation that “the customer journey nowadays ends on social media.” The later is a highly quotable assessment!

  4. Shaun Belding April 20, 2017 at 6:40 am (63 comments) #

    I can’t tell you how relieved I was when you shifted gears back to the ‘don’t blame the customer’ focus!

    If there is any company that understands that great customer experience and profitability are not mutually exclusive, it’s Zappo’s. It is a model that financial people must have originally cringed at. “You’re what? You’re going to ship stuff to people for free? You’re going to return stuff with no penalty? For 365 days? You’re going to have a call centre with no call-time metrics? It’s a recipe for disaster!” Only it wasn’t.

    The ‘get what you pay for’ belief is a bit of a straw man. There will always be people who will make a purchase decision based on price. A study The Belding Group conducted back in 1998 identified that, for 13% of the population, price is the primary factor. The rest all said they would pay more if there was a demonstrable difference in experience. There have been a number of studies since, each with roughly the same results.

    United does not appear to yet understand the relationship between customer experience and profitability. It’s tricky, but clearly achievable. Southwest, JetBlue and WestJet here in Canada figured out that they could replace traditional customer experience items such as hot meals, checked luggage, etc., with lower cost customer experience components like friendliness, fun and compassion.

    You touched on the Spockian concept of “The needs of the many outweigh the need of the few.” This is true in an either-or situation, but as many have subsequently pointed out, there were a lot of other unexplored options that could have had less traumatic outcomes.

    The United incident should indeed be a wake-up call for all of us. Policies, practices and processes should be in place to serve, not to rule. What will be important for United – and all organizations – is to give employees the direction, tools and respect they need to do what is right for the customer

  5. Andrew Rudin April 20, 2017 at 7:13 am (240 comments) #

    Joseph: It’s heartening to read your view. Many CX advocates don’t recognize when a customer contributes to a bad experience. Though Dr. Dao has elicited widespread sympathy, and bloggers have gleefully piled on to the bashing of United (and the airline industry in general), Dr. Dao was far from saintly in this incident.

    While I don’t condone United’s actions, and I think its employees used poor judgement, your point is excellent that customers want it all, and want risk to be someone else’s problem. Wanting it all extends to willful ignorance of exactly what an airline ticket means – as you point out. Buying an airline ticket isn’t so much as buying a seat, it’s buying a chance to have a seat. For most of us, the odds of an airline meeting our expectations are good. So good, in fact, that we’ve become jaded. A chance to have a seat has mutated into our having the perception that we have the right to our seat. Nobody wants to read the fine print.

    Far be it from me to tell someone else how to express their outrage. If I had been in Dr. Dao’s position, I’d have been pretty mad. Probably would have let fly an expletive or two. It wouldn’t matter if there were children in the cabin. That’s how mad I’d be. But I wouldn’t have been dragged out of my seat. I’d have walked out, and ranted and raved in the terminal.

    Almost as much as I’m upset by United’s brutal actions, I’m aggravated by Dr. Dao’s arrogance. He reportedly said he had to meet with patients the following day, therefore, he should not be required to give up his seat. That meant that he believed someone else’s reason for being on that flight was less important than his. “Ask the guy in 10A – he’s a mid-level manager heading off to have a reunion with his fraternity brothers.”

    I’m assuming that this was not Dr. Dao’s first experience with commercial aviation, and he knew the risks of flight cancellations, delays, and yes – denied boarding. Why did he fail to build slack into his schedule for these possibilities? Perhaps he could have scheduled his return from vacation one day earlier to allow for travel problems. Instead, he wanted United to hold the bag for his convenience. And not only United, but the passengers on every flight for which United needed to re-balance its crew. That’s the height of arrogance. And he’s the one throwing the tantrum . . . figures.

    My recommendation to Dr. Dao, and anyone else who expect perfection in airline departures and arrivals: plan for [stuff] to happen. Otherwise, help out where you can, because there’s a fellow passenger whose need to get from Point A to Point B is possibly far more urgent than yours.

  6. Joseph Michelli April 20, 2017 at 8:06 am (62 comments) #

    Michael Lowenstein – you are a thought leader in the space not a person who has decided to enter the customer experience space because United is easy to critique. I met the “United Breaks Guitars” guy on the road as we were both speaking at an event. You would have thought that fiasco would have been a major wake-up call for customer-centricity and the follow-out from “break – downs.”

  7. Joseph Michelli April 20, 2017 at 8:12 am (62 comments) #

    Shaun Belding – I was sweating to get back to the brand focus myself LOL. I did however, want to make the point about win/win in the customer experience. We as customers have to remember that there is “good profit” and “bad profit.” I love your research findings and the analysis that springs from it. Often the trick is finding the “and” and sometimes helping core customers choose which of two things matters most – and delivering that one.

    In no circumstance should it come down to a choice between “a seat” or “missing teeth”

  8. Michael Lowenstein April 20, 2017 at 8:19 am (1320 comments) #

    ‘United Breaks Guitars’ was over eight years ago, accompanied by a YouTube video viewed almost 20 million times. That massive negative WOM should have been a cultural wake-up call for United, but NO. Last month, a United gate agent barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight simply because they were wearing leggings, and now the disaster represented by Dr. Dao. It’s hard to take a contrarian view when United seems to have done very little since destroying a musician’s expensive Taylor guitar. It’s the airline embodiment of an old saying, attributed to Kissinger, Einstein and others: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

  9. Shaun Belding April 20, 2017 at 11:21 am (63 comments) #

    Andrew – I would disagree wholeheartedly on your assessment of customer’s expectations regarding ticketing and Dr. Dao’s choice of actions. I fly a lot. And I’m not forking over good money, and making plans just for the potential opportunity to have a seat on an airplane. I’m buying a seat, and a commitment on their part to do their best to get me where I need to go – small print be damned. (Equipment issues, weather – those sorts of things aside…) . That, I believe is the reasonable expectation.

    Dr. Dao’s motivations and experience are completely irrelevant. The problem was created entirely by United, and he had no ethical or moral obligation to be part of their fix. I’m guessing that I would not move my buns off a seat without a reasonable explanation as to why it was me, and a whole lot better compensation than an $800 voucher for an airline I would likely not fly again.

    Are customers sometimes the architects of their own experiences? Absolutely. But this would be a very poor case study for that argument .

  10. Bob Thompson April 20, 2017 at 11:35 am (226 comments) #

    It’s hard for me to work up any sympathy for United whatsoever.

    United can hide behind the fine print to kick people off because it’s legal.

    Fine, so where is it written that one customer who buys a seat has the obligation to think about the impact of his/her decisions on all other customers? It is the airline’s job to manage this, NOT customers.

    I’ve had my share of bad UAL experiences over the years, and finally said I would fly ABU (Anything But United). United Breaks Guitars wasn’t enough to change the culture, and I doubt that United Breaks Faces will be any different.

    UNLESS, they fire the CEO and bring in someone that really believes they need to treat customers as people and not just wallets to be emptied.

    It’s true that customers can be unreasonable sometimes. Every airline has to deal with them, but somehow it’s UAL that makes headlines because it can’t problem solve without blunt force trauma.

    The simplest and cheapest solution was to just keep raising the amount of money until 4 people *volunteered* to leave the plane. Let’s say they paid $5K or even $10K to make this happen. Compare that to the $millions that it will cost UAL to pay for Dr. Dao’s injuries, not to mention the loss in customer trust and market value.

  11. Andrew Rudin April 20, 2017 at 1:44 pm (240 comments) #

    Even though it’s somewhat tangential to this topic, I’m compelled to provide some information about the “leggings” incident in which two female passengers were denied boarding because their attire was deemed inappropriate. Not all the facts are being presented in this thread.

    The two passengers in question were flying on non-revenue tickets through a perk that United provides its employees and some of their relatives and friends. Prior to this incident, the airline had a clear policy that it expects passengers flying under this arrangement to conform to standards of dress. These two passengers either didn’t know, or chose to ignore the policy.

    It’s a fair request. In a statement, the airline explained that they consider any passenger using this perk to be a representative of United, hence the request for proper attire. It’s unfortunate that these two passengers objected, and maybe the United representative’s actions were brusque. But it was the right thing to do. (See “United Rightly Denied Boarding to Two Girls Wearing Leggings.” http://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2017/03/26/united-denied-boarding-two-girls-leggings/

    I learned about this policy several years ago when a friend of mine who at the time was an executive with a major US airline (not United) explained to me the reasons his company had the policy. “We represent [name of airline] when we travel, so they don’t want us to be dressed in shorts, T-Shirts, and flip flops when we’re on a flight.

  12. Joseph Michelli April 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm (62 comments) #

    Shaun – I agree that United’s value proposition is not “an option” like a concert ticket but rather “carriage” with exclusions and reasonable performance demands in the contract. I can’t arrive after the agreed upon boarding time an be assured passage but they can’t under their contract – remove me after they give me access to a seat.

  13. Joseph Michelli April 20, 2017 at 3:24 pm (62 comments) #

    Bob – I truly am not a sympathizer or defender of United. I have consulted for non-US based carriers and know great customer experience professionals at other US airlines but have no stake in attempting to dampen the outcry from the incident.

    I have read a number of research articles lately that suggest “customer experience” transformation often fails at enterprise-levels when they become too platitudinal and don’t create win/wins.

    I was trying to intimate that both parties in a service transactions have some responsibilities to assure sustainably great experiences. I don’t think I communicated that effectively, however.

    I just know that when I am the service provider much is and should be expected of me, but minutes later I might be a customer. In that role, I have the opportunity to think about the reasonableness of every expectation I place on those that serve me and hope to consider some of the impact of my expectations on others being served.

    The first part of my article was trying to explore this most challenging discussion point. As such it was meant to be more of a moral and pragmatic consideration for consumers (re balance and sustainment) and certainly not sympathetic to the egregious conduct demonstrated on that United flight.

  14. Thomas Wieberneit April 20, 2017 at 7:15 pm (226 comments) #

    Joseph, I am fully with Bob here, for some simple reasons:

    The company hides behind the fine print, which probably has about as many pages as a novel (exaggerating here). The problem with fine print is that it skews the odds in favor of the vendor – the much famed neo-liberal equality of negotiation power is a myth. Most customers do not want it all, but they want a fair contract. Do they get it? I do not think so.

    This basic problem becomes dangerous when combined with a rules book that apparently asks the employees to give away their common sense at the door to their workplace – unless you are C-suite, that is.

    Simple thinking could have avoided this desaster – like make a reverse auction. Offer an increasing price for giving up a seat. This could already be done in the gate lounge. Another one is: Do not overbook, but always give a seat – flexi tickets are bound to one flight, if someone wants to change it then this is subject to availability. There are so many solutions – United simply chose those that tilt the game into their favor.

    2 ct from Down Under
    Thomas
    @twieberneit

    PS: Looking forward to flying United now …

  15. Gautam Mahajan April 21, 2017 at 3:12 am (176 comments) #

    If the Customers are not important and are draggable and we can extract a price for ticket changes,and no shows, then we should expect them to find another way to get their crew to wherever by private jet…Does the UA President travel by private jet from profits made from you and me

  16. Joseph Michelli April 23, 2017 at 6:25 am (62 comments) #

    Thomas, the reverse auction is a brilliant idea for the gate lounge. Resolution in the lounge appears to be a point on which we agree. I also think the way you challenge my “want it all” comment is fair. In keeping with James Lincoln Collier’s writings about the Rise of Selfishness in America and trends in escalating customer service expectations (fueled by technology), there is a place to remind one another to think about the impact of individual decisions on collective service needs. I do agree with you on the need for easy readability and fairness in contracts. Thanks for your significant contribution to this discussion.

  17. Joseph Michelli April 23, 2017 at 6:31 am (62 comments) #

    Gautam, customers are the reason why United and all airlines exist. Customers are not draggable (lest they pose a safety risk to other travelers), but can be reasonably charged for travel changes and no shows. As for private jet travel for crew, that appears to be one of many potentially viable solutions. I am unaware of the UA presidents travel mechanisms but am sure that fees earned from customer’s fund his business transportation. Guatam, as always thanks for adding to this discussion.

  18. Joseph Michelli April 23, 2017 at 6:35 am (62 comments) #

    Andrew a policy like the one discussed does appear to be a perk subject to reasonable conditions like attire/behavior congruent with brand representation. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  19. Gautam Mahajan April 23, 2017 at 7:29 am (176 comments) #

    Joseph, my point is that if you charge for no show, you are stating that your no show caused an empty seat. Which means no overbooking.
    You can’t charge me for no show and also overbook. Do one or the other

  20. Joseph Michelli April 23, 2017 at 11:40 am (62 comments) #

    Guatam interesting point! I understand, in that, in other areas of the travel industry, I’ve been charged when I’ve cancelled since no-one purportedly booked a residential property subsequent to my cancellation. In those cases, I could not verify if a replacement booking actually took place. The lack of transparency led me to be skeptical that the renter was making profit both on my cancellation and on a replacement booking.

  21. Jonathan Wolske April 24, 2017 at 11:53 am (1 comment) #

    One thing I see missing from all of this is outrage at the organization that dragged Dr. Dao from the plane. From what I can gather, those men were not United employees.

    United lost me with the United Breaks Guitars – as a musician that is an inexcusable situation and their reaction was so poor – truth be told, they never had me. I’ve been a Southwest raving fan for years. On the few occasions I have flown other carriers I have experienced either real problems or utter lacks of the service mentality at all.

    It was bad. It needs to be a very real focus for the entire United organization. Sadly, I don’t think much will change – maybe there will be more lip-service paid to customer-centricity, but it is going to take a drastic change at the top to really shake things up enough (because we know what rolls down-hill…. it isn’t snowballs.)

  22. Michael Lowenstein April 24, 2017 at 12:48 pm (1320 comments) #

    To Jonathan – My CustomerThink post from last week addressed this very topic. The only actions we’ve seen from United are a) CEO Oscar Muniz is being denied the chairmanship of the company and b) senior executive incentives will be somewhat tied to customer service scores. If this second move is anything like Comcast’s very little can be expected to change. After two years and millions of dollars invested, Comcast’s Temkin and NPS ratings continue to be historically low.

  23. Shaun Belding April 24, 2017 at 2:09 pm (63 comments) #

    Michael – the parallels to Comcast are scary. Wouldn’t a case study comparing them be awesome?

  24. Michael Lowenstein April 24, 2017 at 2:27 pm (1320 comments) #

    Shaun – For a real case study comparison, United would need to pursue an initiative, or set of initiatives, the objective of which would be to fundamentally change the culture. Last year, Jeff Toister published a CustomerThink post on Comcast which, de facto, represented a cultural transformation and measurment case study. It evaluated their progress after a year of investment: http://customerthink.com/one-year-in-to-comcasts-massive-customer-service-overhaul/

  25. Cyrus Allen April 24, 2017 at 5:59 pm (3 comments) #

    Joseph I like your books but I’m surprised that your lead arguments essentially put the blame on the customer – even to the point of saying the victim wasn’t an ideal passenger. Well, I’m sorry but do we really expect someone who’s ordered off a plane at random, who has life commitments and obligations to fulfill, to meekly walk off without complaining?

    Further, you customers shouldn’t “want it all” (but please believe the commercials portraying loads of space, smiling attendants, great food etc. – i.e. the fantasy airlines sell); or customers should clearly understand the T&C’s – seriously, have you ever read them from an airline? Not to mention the elephant in the room – if I buy a ticket it’s on the belief that I can have that seat, not that I’ll be turfed for your marginal profit transactional orientation.

    To give you the benefit of the doubt re the T&C’s, I’ve just gone through the booking process for a NY-LA flight – in flexible economy. Along the entire purchase flow there is no mention of being bumped if oversold. On the payments screen there is a summary of T&Cs – none of which mention bumping due to being oversold. 3 of the four links provided don’t work (so even if you want to read the detail you can’t). There’s one about ‘contract of carriage) you can read – and that doesn’t mention overselling -> bumping.

    So there’s no way to substantiate the idea that customers should be responsible for understanding ‘their contract’.

    However, your follow up’s re apologies and never over-selling, or at the very least not kicking people off once they’re onboard make sense.

    But it’s a deeper cultural issue Joseph as you point out. Others do it well – e.g. SouthWest. The more recent AA incident where an attendant swiped at a mother holding a baby with her stroller and then tried to pick a fight with a passenger who stood up for her point to a wider bully boy culture that needs urgent attention.

    Bottom line folks – there is no way to justify this overreach in behaviour by UA.

  26. Joseph Michelli April 24, 2017 at 7:49 pm (62 comments) #

    Cyrus you are absolutely correct that the customer was a victim! You are also spot on with regard to the “brand promise” implied by advertising not being congruent with the limitations endemic in actual travel.

    As for the terms and conditions I’m glad to share the relevant sections for the consideration of fellow travelers as they contemplate purchases with the carrier…

    Rule 5 covers cancellation of tickets and sub section G reads…

    “All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.”

    Rule 25 is very lengthy but the first section should give you a flavor of how they have protected certain customer segments (disabilities, unaccompanied minors, class of ticket, loyalty etc).

    “RULE 25 DENIED BOARDING COMPENSATION

    Denied Boarding (U.S.A./Canadian Flight Origin) – When there is an Oversold UA flight that originates in the U.S.A. or Canada, the following provisions apply:

    Request for Volunteers

    UA will request Passengers who are willing to relinquish their confirmed reserved space in exchange for compensation in an amount determined by UA (including but not limited to check or an electronic travel certificate). The travel certificate will be valid only for travel on UA or designated Codeshare partners for one year from the date of issue and will have no refund value. If a Passenger is asked to volunteer, UA will not later deny boarding to that Passenger involuntarily unless that Passenger was informed at the time he was asked to volunteer that there was a possibility of being denied boarding involuntarily and of the amount of compensation to which he/she would have been entitled in that event. The request for volunteers and the selection of such person to be denied space will be in a manner determined solely by UA

    .
    Boarding Priorities – If a flight is Oversold, no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority:

    Passengers who are Qualified Individuals with Disabilities, unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 years, or minors between the ages of 5 to 15 years who use the unaccompanied minor service, will be the last to be involuntarily denied boarding if it is determined by UA that such denial would constitute a hardship.

    The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment…..”

    Cyrus, as you noted, this horrific incident was unjustifiable. Thanks for the kindness and thoughtfulness of your response.

  27. Shaun Belding April 24, 2017 at 7:52 pm (63 comments) #

    Michael: Thanks – now I have some weekend reading!

    I certainly had the impression that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts flip-flopped on his pledge to improve service. (I reflected on it in my blog last January http://www.shaunbelding.com/customer-service-blog/comcast-customer-service-one-year-later ). The commonality that I saw (not having read Jeff’s piece) was that the only initiative both companies seem capable of is trying to rationalize their existing performance levels.

  28. Cyrus Allen April 24, 2017 at 11:30 pm (3 comments) #

    Joseph thanks for your reply – you must’ve dug deep for that link! Well in fact I found it by google search after your prompt – it’s a secondary link off the Contract of Carriage page.

    The actual CoC in full took me 80 PAGE TABS FROM TOP TO BOTTOM. So I guess, if we want people to understand the risks and limitations of their air ticket, we ask them to wade through this level of detail and legalese?

    I don’t think you believe that.

    Regards, Cyrus.

  29. Joseph Michelli April 25, 2017 at 4:31 am (62 comments) #

    Cyrus, I think customers should not have to conduct and archeological dig to access the contract terms. I think they should be readable and transparent. As for length, I would want it to be comprehensive to the actual terms such that their are no hidden terms. Thanks for adding to the discussion. Joseph

  30. Michael Lowenstein April 25, 2017 at 5:16 am (1320 comments) #

    Shaun – In Jeff’s Comcast post, he first presented ACSI results, which I tend to discount because they measure satisfaction and not emotional response or behavior. As I responded to Jeff at the time, “Also interesting to note that, according to the 2016 Temkin Customer Service Ratings, just published this week, “Comcast, meanwhile, earned the lowest score in the Temkin Customer Service Ratings for the third straight year. Once again, the company received the two lowest scores in the Ratings, one for its TV service business and one for its Internet service….” For TV service, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Cox, Bright House, and AT&T all had Temkin ratings twice as high as Comcast’s. There was similar 2:1 ratio inTemkin ISP rating superiority for Time Warner, Charter, and Cox.. Again, this demonstrates that you can throw money and superficial performance measurement at an initiative; and, if the culture and discipline are insufficient to support goals, very little of real substance and lasting improvement will happen.”

  31. Gautam Mahajan April 25, 2017 at 7:06 am (176 comments) #

    How difficult it is to do business as a Customer…you have to accept the rules of your supplier.
    Big companies want to control their suppliers (because the big company is the Customer) and big companies want to control their Customers.
    This is a true win win for them (the big company),
    Dear Customer, you have no choice but to accept what we big companies want to do.

  32. Bob Thompson April 27, 2017 at 1:25 pm (226 comments) #

    United and Dr. Dao reached a confidential settlement today.
    http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/news/companies/united-airlines-dao-settlement/

    And United has commited to 10 policy changes including:
    1. United won’t use law enforcement unless there’s a safety or security issue — it won’t call the cops simply to enforce its own policies.
    2. Boarded passengers won’t be asked to give up their seats involuntarily unless there’s a safety or security issue.
    3. United is increasing compensation up to $10,000 for voluntarily giving up your seat.

    See the rest at:
    http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/news/companies/united-10-policy-changes-after-flight-3411/index.html?iid=EL

    So, all good now?

  33. Shaun Belding April 27, 2017 at 7:08 pm (63 comments) #

    Ha ha Bob – you beat me to it! It certainly appears to be substantive. But…. is it going to be part of an ongoing customer experience improvement strategy, or is it the smoke and mirrors trick Comcast used to try and quiet the social media noise?

  34. Bob Thompson April 27, 2017 at 11:30 pm (226 comments) #

    According to the latest ACSI results (https://www.theacsi.org/?option=com_content&view=article&id=147&catid=14&Itemid=212&i=Airlines), UAL made a significant improvement in the past couple of years.

    After many years mired in the low 60s, nearly 20 points below industry leaders Southwest and JetBlue, UAL jumped to 68 in 2016 and then 70 in 2017. Still, that’s 6 points below key competitors AA and Delta. And, the industry average has moved up 6 points since 2015.

    My take: UAL will invest “just enough” to try to avoid PR nightmares like United Breaks Faces, and to avoid being a total embarrassment. But not enough to become an csat industry leader.

    And why should they? The financials look good!
    http://newsroom.united.com/2017-01-17-United-Airlines-Reports-Full-Year-and-Fourth-Quarter-2016-Performance

  35. Joseph Michelli April 28, 2017 at 7:39 am (62 comments) #

    Bob, United’s analysis and “course forward” reflects thoughtfulness and a reasonable set of first steps. I think they are in the “spotlight” and as such will need to execute – particularly in their commitment to “train” and “empower” staff members to make “human” considerations in the context of previously rigid operational priorities.

    That said, this may be a case of “reasonableness too late.” The PR disaster has blown-up well beyond complete repair. I do commend the speed with which leaders resolved the pending lawsuit – such that this doesn’t get even more traction in the court of public opinion.

    Finally, I think the significant announcement yesterday was (in keeping with my original blog) from Southwest – as they join Jet Blue in discontinuing oversold flights altogether.

    Your thoughts Bob, Shaun, Gautam, Michael, Cyrus, Jonathan, Andrew and Else-marie….

  36. Bob Thompson April 28, 2017 at 9:04 am (226 comments) #

    Joseph, thanks for a provocative post that stimulated a great discussion.

    I like your term “reasonable.” Another one I’d suggest is “fair.”

    If the airline (or other mega corporation) is fair and reasonable, I think they’d have a better chance of managing us self-centered consumers. You were right to point out that we all have a role to play, but it’s hard to think about that when being dragged off a plane!

    I’m glad to see Southwest follow JetBlue on the no overbooking, it fits with their many other customer-friendly practices. Like, for example, no fees for changing a ticket (other than any differential in fares). And if you cancel, the money goes back into your account to be used on another flight.

    My wife flies Southwest a lot and most every week has a good story about how they dealt with flight delays or other issues, with a positive spirit. I don’t need to read the “contract of carriage” to expect I’ll be treated in a fair and reasonable manner.

    The steps United has committed to look good, but I’m skeptical there will be lasting change without a wholesale change in leadership. Unfortunately, enough consumers are either willing to fly United or don’t have a choice, so that customer service is not driving business performance (aside from extreme negative incidents like this one.)

    As I said earlier, if you’re making money, why change?

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