Some customer experience lessons from United’s and my own experience of denied boarding


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In recent weeks, we have seen a enormous amount of coverage of the incident involving Dr David Dao when he was violently dragged off a United Airlines plane in Chicago on the 9th of April, losing two teeth and suffering a broken nose in the process.

If that was not bad enough, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO received a huge amount of criticism for how he initially responded to the incident where, in his first public statement following the incident, he and United took no responsibility for what had happened and went on to describe Dr Dao as being “disruptive and belligerent”.

Subsequently, Mr Munoz expressed regret and shame at how the incident was handled, has apologized to Dr Dao and has instigated a number of changes to United’s policies and procedures including:

  • No longer allowing crew members to displace customers already seated on a plane; and
  • Plans to link pay more closely to customer satisfaction.

In the wake of United’s PR disaster, other airlines have followed suit and have instituted changes to their own policies:

  • American has promised that it will never ‘bump’ a passenger once the passenger is seated; and
  • Delta has increased it’s offer to passengers to nearly $10,000 to get them to give up their seat in the case of over-booking.

Now, the issue at the heart of the incident is the common practice among airlines to oversell the number of seats on flights. They do this, primarily, in order to manage the profitability of some of their routes. To make this work they bet that, even if they do oversell the number of seats on a flight, a number of passengers will rearrange, not show up or will miss their flights and that everyone that has shown up for the flight will get on the plane.

However, as this incident shows, that doesn’t always happen. And, how an airline reacts to such a situation can often be the start of a PR and customer experience disaster.

Now, whilst it has been really interesting to watch all of this play out in the media, a few days ago, I personally came face to face with this very issue myself.

Following a work trip to Holland, I was returning to the UK on Friday evening. Arriving at the airport around two hours before my flight, I tried to check in using the self service machines. However, the machine informed me that I couldn’t check in at that time and was asked to report to the manned check-in desks. On doing that, I was then told that I wouldn’t be able to board the flight as there were no available seats and I was then presented with the letter (below). I was also asked to proceed to the departure gate for more information.

I was stunned. However, when I enquired why and how this had happened, the check-in desk employee was unable to give me an answer. When I persisted and asked for more information, the employee proceeded to provide an implausible (and later to be proved to be untrue) explanation of why I had been ‘Denied Boarding’.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, I proceeded to the departure gate as instructed and, thankfully, found a boarding pass waiting for me there.

What a relief.BA Denied Boarding Letter

But, on arriving at home, I was still a little troubled by my own experience and took a closer look at the letter I was given. On closer inspection, I noticed that, at the beginning of Para. 5, it states that ‘Before denying boarding to any passenger, we will call for volunteers’.

In my case, that didn’t happen.

Further frustration.

This caused me to reflect on Dr Dao’s experience and my own and to try and draw some broad customer service/experience lessons from this. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • In times of crisis, disconnected CEOs can be very damaging. It’s understandable that Oscar Munoz’s first reaction was to defend United. But, he did so without fully understanding what had really happened and that suggests that he is either not connected to a full set of real time data sources or he was being fed selective information. In times of crisis, it’s critical that leaders and executives are fully informed, regardless of how ugly the truth might be. Since the incident with Dr Dao, United have paid the price and have lost millions and millions from their stock valuation, a number of high-profile accounts and have suffered from days and weeks of bad press.
  • Playing out unlikely scenarios will help you stress test your policies and procedures. Not all of your policies will be customer-friendly ‘in extremis’ and that is where most of the big problems will lie. Those scenarios may not happen very often but when they do they can be very damaging and, thus, thinking them through and being prepared for them will make your customer experience stronger.
  • Provide staff with the right level of training and, most importantly, the right sort of information to help them do their job. Not doing so can put them in a compromising position, result in forced lies which can fuel both customer and employee frustration.
  • Do what you say you are going to do. Over-booking is an industry reality. But, if you are going to ask for volunteers to give up their seats, then ask for volunteers, don’t just deny someone their seat. Not to follow your own procedure leaves a customer feeling disenfranchised, fuels negative feelings, undermines trust and does little for your brand and experience.

What would you add to the list?

This post was originally published on here.

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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