Can United Airlines Provide Exceptional Customer Service While Maintaining Operational Efficiency?

In April of 2017 customer Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a United flight by airport security at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Passengers filmed Dr. Dao’s violent removal and the video immediately went viral bringing discussions of ethics, customer service, and the balance between airline profitability and respectful treatment of customers front and center.

Two people sitting in an airport terminal

In looking back, there isn’t one specific cause for what happened that day. Paying customers needed to be bumped so four crew members could be transported to Louisville for a flight later that day. The flight had already been completely boarded when gate agents learned about the four crew members, making it impossible to follow the normal procedure of asking for volunteers before boarding began. Passengers are much more willing to give up their seats for incentives before boarding the plane.  Unfortunately, incentives were not effective in getting enough passengers to give up their seats, and Dr. Dao was randomly selected by a computer to be removed. Upon his refusal to move the flight crew called security who broke protocol by immediately removing him from the plane with physical force.

The initial response by United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, fueled more public outrage, as he stated the company had done nothing wrong in how they “re-accommodated” passengers.  The public’s anger comes from the perception of United Airlines’ values: that operational efficiency (measured by on-time departures and cost savings) comes before the respect and welfare of passengers. Clearly, being on time and fully staffed at the lowest expense possible (by transporting backup crew members at the expense of four passengers) is believed to be more important than the happiness of a customer. While the damage to United’s market share will likely be insignificant, the hit on its reputation (“fly the friendly skies”) won’t be.

Can a company with a clear need for operational efficiency also prioritize the customer experience? Yes, and this is possible with a strong and clearly articulated organizational culture. This begins with Oscar Munoz and his leadership team’s beliefs about success and how it is achieved. They must decide that consistently creating experiences that make customers feel cared for and confident in their decision to choose United is a priority for their future success. This belief then needs to be strongly communicated and built into policies.  An example: using more expensive means to transport reserve flight crews, as needed, and not bumping passengers – especially when they’ve already boarded.  While United adopted the policy of not bumping passengers once they are boarded following this incident, they could have avoided severe damage to their reputation, and market share, if this decision were already in place. This would have been more likely if United had the right cultural beliefs and values in place. Leadership must determine how operational efficiency and a positive passenger experience can both be achieved – and inspire commitment to this vision for everyone from gate agents to operations executives.

United’s organizational culture determines what is valued – and rewarded.  If C-level leaders emphasize operational efficiency at the exclusion of customer care, this mindset will spread to all employees – including flight crews and gate agents. Further, blinding focus on complying with policy and putting efficiency first may create a punishing environment that only leads to compliance by employees and not the commitment that is needed to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

If United were to make customer service and happiness a priority, the benefits could extend beyond the passenger experience. To achieve this United needs to hire and train employees adept in self-awareness and empathy – essential to delivering connecting customer service. Connecting with passengers, building rapport, and reading a situation accurately will not only build United’s reputation, but also help employees recognize safety concerns faster – and gain the commitment of passengers and team members in an emergency. For change to be successful, employees need to know and understand what is needed for operational efficiency while making passengers feel valued and pleased with their decision to fly United.

While most airlines compete based on price, destinations, and flight schedules, a differentiating passenger experience and reputation for hospitality and customer service will build loyalty. We know loyal customers are higher margin customers – and more likely to choose an airline to further their rewards in a loyalty or frequent flyer program. Across industries, just a five percent rise in customer loyalty increases profits by 25 to 85 percent. The four major airlines, including United, rank toward the bottom of customer loyalty rankings – meaning United has an opportunity to compete and differentiate as an airline that provides connecting customer service. In situations when two airlines offer flights with similar prices and arrival times – customers will choose the one that makes them feel valued and competent in their decision.

Next Steps

Whether you’re intentionally building and measuring it, or only thinking about it when the topic comes up – you have a culture. We believe the strongest cultures clearly communicate expectations for how to behave, care for each stakeholder group, compete, and be unique. Culture provides concrete values that give employees an understanding of your reason for being, as well as reasons to believe. If your employees don’t believe, your customers and other stakeholders won’t believe.

You have a culture – but is it the right one and aligned with your values and beliefs about success? To explore the layers of your culture download our whitepaper, “What is Organizational Culture?”

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Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work.  Harvard Business Review.  July-August 2008.

After United dragging incident, 3 major airlines change policies affecting bumped passengers.  The Washington Post.  April 17, 2017.

The Surprising Airline That’s Now Leading in Customer Loyalty.  The Motley Fool.  February, 2016.

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