Is United Airlines (Truly) Sorry? If So, What’s Next? Here’s A List of 4.5 Potential Actions.


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Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, has identified “shame” and being disturbed as his reaction to the wrenching cellphone video of Dr. David Dao being manhandled (suffering a skull fracture, lost teeth, and a broken nose), while being forced off one of the airline’s flights to make room for United employees. The incident has gotten worldwide attention.

Many can recall the experience songwriter Dave Carroll had with his “United Breaks Guitars” encounter, and his YouTube video seen by close to 20 million people. But, this is worse because it involves more than just an inanimate object. Dr. Dao is a live human being, with emotions and rights. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has weighed in (pardon the pun) on Dr. Dao’s behalf, saying “Everybody who flies commercial knows United is awful. I don’t think they’ve set a culture there.”

The airline has offered refunds to all of the United Express Flight 3411 passengers as the outrage over Dr. Dao’s removal has continued. United has also committed to review policies and employee training to avoid future such scenes of abuse. Here is a cold reality: It’s not nearly enough.

Munoz has apologized to Dr. Dao, but it’s not enough, in part because the apology doesn’t extend to either other passengers on the flight or United employees. The airline has said “This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so that this never happens again.” Blah, blah, blah….. Saying you’re committed is just words, not initiatives and tangible action. It’s an apology of a sort, but it’s not nearly enough.

In the recent past, companies like BP, Wells Fargo, Comcast, and Toyota have faced strong criticism for undermining the trust, reputation, and image among stakeholders. Customer and employee experience research tells us that only sincere, strategic and disciplined approaches, changing the DNA and stakeholder experience processes, are sufficient to right the perception ship of an impaired organization.

So, how will United strategically demonstrate – to the public, to passengers, and to their employees – their rectitude (moral correction of behavior or thinking) and resolve to become a more socially responsible and stakeholder-centric enterprise? Will the company, for example:

1. Actively work to modify the enterprise culture and DNA so that it is proactively stakeholder-centric, emphasizing both customer experience and employee experience? The model for this is Southwest and Virgin, which United would do well to emulate

2a. Completely overhaul and reframe their onboarding processes so that ticketed passengers always receive seating priority, irrespective of flight crew movement needs (and supposed impact on profitability)?

2b. And, as an extension to 2a, will they give airport staff more latitude (financial and otherwise) for handling overbooked situations?

3. Train airport counter, gate, and flight employees – and everyone else in the company not directly connected to customers – to recognize that serving passengers in a positive, effective way is both a privilege and a responsibility?

4. Publicly apologize, through PSA’s (public service announcements), going on record that they are changing policies and practices, not only with respect to processes, but to core culture and values? Moreover, periodically reporting to employees, passengers, and the general public on progress in these areas will be essential.

Much of what United created for itself has to do with productivity-obsessive culture, and regressive, insensitive policies executed by uncommitted employees. And, at the employee level, as an affirmation of stakeholder-centricity, this is about employee ambassadorship: commitment to the customers, to the company, to the value proposition and to fellow employees.

A 2015 Advertising Age blog by a leading marketing research consulting organization encapsulated employee ambassadorship very well: Ambassadorship should be an enterprise-wide mantra for every organization: “All employees need to embody the intended customer experience . A narrative must be cascaded down to every single individual in the organization. Your employees must clearly understand their role in delivering the promise the narrative makes to the end customer. This requires multiple conversations and socialization across all business divisions and at every level, not just for customer support roles”

If United Airlines is truly sorry for what was so publicly done to Dr. Dao, and if they truly intend to reshape both the culture and experience processes so that they are in sync and fully stakeholder-centric, the list identified above is a good starting point.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. Hi Michael, very true – just that I think that with human attention spans being shorter than those of a gold fish what really needs to be there instead of point 4 is a plan, with milestones, measures, and deadlines.

    And, in answering the question you ask in the title: No. Not if the CEO says words like “I am sorry … we will fix this”. the change from the personal “I” to the fuzzy “We” already indicates that there is no ownership, hence no will to change.

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Thomas –

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives. And, I agree that employees need, and want, a unified vision and customer-centric set of processes to follow, with milestones and actionable measures (such as the customer-focused employee ambassadorship research framework we’ve designed) to accomplish this.

    For any company serious about moving, as my colleague Colin Shaw puts it, from naive to natural, the cultural transformation must be both transparent and strategic. Further, it requires partnership across the enterprise. Several years ago, I wrote about the two-year organizational journey of Baptist Health Care, based in Pensacola, FL. With committed senior leadership and discipline, any company – yes, even United – can become stakeholder-centric, focused on optimal value delivery.


  3. Hi Michael: I agree with what Thomas said in his second paragraph. Contrition is something people must express – not companies. I don’t think United will be successful in fixing anything unless senior executives step up and personally apologize for the transgression committed against Dr. Dao.

    I might agree that “Saying you’re committed is just words,” but you have to start somewhere. Commitments require words, followed by action. Dr. Dao was dragged off his flight in the evening on April 9th – eight days ago. So I can’t malign United for initially making a statement that they intend to change their corporate culture and polices. Now the rubber must meet the road, and we are looking for tangible evidence that United has honored its stated commitment. I trust that, at this point, United’s PR staff is savvy enough to understand that the flying public craves hard evidence, and they will take every opportunity to show us.

    I don’t condone United’s actions. I think their staff used very poor judgement in this incident. When it comes to re-assigning boarding privileges, I agree that economic incentives work far better than physical force. But I think a lot of the United bashing that has taken place is wrong, including your point in 2a. When it comes to not prioritizing crew movements, I say, ‘be careful what you wish for – you might get it.’

    Many fliers don’t realize that one way airlines cut operating costs is to move crew to from hubs to smaller airports when they are needed. Lower operating costs sometimes translate to lower ticket prices, which most passengers would never want to sacrifice. In addition, most passengers don’t have a handle on exactly how many on-time departures and arrivals they’ve experienced because the flight crew was flown in from another airport. Without moving crew from place to place, flight cancellations and delays would increase dramatically, and passengers would be hollering for different reasons.

    Now, we just assume that fresh pilots and flight attendants are hanging out in White Plains, NY, Dayton OH, or Richmond VA. Of course, that’s not always the case. As far as I’m concerned, I WANT airlines to have the ability to transfer crew to another place when they need to, because I might be the passenger who would be massively inconvenienced when there’s nobody at the airport who can fly the plane, and handle the safety instructions. But I’m also uncomfortable thinking that a passenger in another city suffered physically to make that happen. It would please me much more that a fellow passenger in another city happily walked off his or her flight after receiving a fair settlement for exchanging his seat. The classic “win/win.” Life, as it should be.

    On a separate, but related note: I was not aware that Dr. Dao suffered a skull fracture. His attorney’s statement indicated that he had a concussion, among the other injuries you mentioned. Do you know where this was reported? I couldn’t find anything.

  4. Andy, in the end, United might be different than other companies where a) some triggering customer delivery event caused public contrition and b) resulting from that event, a pledge to change was made. But, words of contrition and pledges aren’t specific; and, in United’s case, there have been no further details re actions they will be taking. An old, but good, saying is that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, so we will see…………..

    And, as a passenger, the flight crew provision issue is one of function and process. Like other airlines, United should be managing crew availability without it becoming a large passenger hardship. Whether fresh pilots and cabin crew are in White Plaints, New York, White Bear Lake Minnesota, or White Mountain, Alaska isn’t my problem. It’s the airline’s dual responsibility, as much as possible, to keep from inconveniencing me and make me comfortable.

    Re. Dr. Dao’s injuries, one of the on-air reports I’d seen said ‘skull fracture’. The report could be mistaken….there’s a lot of that going around.

  5. Hi Michael: Passengers expect airlines to take care of logistical issues so they are not inconvenienced. But getting crew members where they need to be is a shared problem. We all like low fares and convenient schedules, right? The difficulty is that everyone wants somebody else to make the sacrifices. I don’t see accommodating crew as entirely the airline’s problem. There needs to be some ‘give and take’ in the system for it to work for everyone. I don’t know the exact situation in Louisville, but it’s not a stretch to recognize that getting 4 crew to that destination (and bumping 4 passengers in Chicago) possibly meant that 160 or so passengers could leave Louisville later that evening.

    I am confident that in your history of air travel, a flight you booked departed on time (or departed at all) because a crew member got boarding priority over an existing reservation. The airline didn’t announce it that way at the departure gate, but this happens every day. We don’t learn about it, because mostly, thousands of similar events take place without any hitches – until they don’t.

    Operations research has helped airlines drastically reduce the number of passenger bumping. The latest statistic I found was that in 2016, 40,000 US passengers were ‘involuntarily’ bumped (denied boarding) from flights when they held a reserved seat. That seems a small number, unless you were one of the 40,000. And yes, airport security personnel practice every day how to remove passengers from planes when they don’t want to leave. Public safety demands this. Go to YouTube, and search on ‘passenger removed from plane . . .’ You will see many instances when you would be quite grateful that teams of people know how to do this. Obviously, it’s upsetting when force is used unnecessarily. Perhaps also because it’s a harsh reminder that not everyone who boards a flight is safe to fly with.

    Passengers are sharing a finite resource, and I’m under no delusions that sometimes when my reservation is preserved, it’s possible that someone else’s wasn’t, enabling me to board. I also realize what airlines (and transportation companies in general) trade off when building slack into their operations. They can better accommodate risk, but costs increase. To have a flying public that accepts a reasonable offer to accommodate deadheading crew members seems fair to ask.

  6. Andy, I guess I’ll agree to disagree with you on this. I’ve been flying internationally for well over 50 years. There are many aspects of the passenger experience – including air safety, luggage handling, ticketing and onboarding, and flight crew provision – which should be, and usually is, facilitated by systems. They are ‘taken for granted’, or basic processes;, and they should be largely out of sight and out of mind of the passengers.. Passengers, like hotel guests, retail customers, auto renters, etc. are paying the bills. They have a right to be the first priority, and they should expect that vendors are delivering value on that basis..


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