On Business & Life: Lessons from United’s debacle at O’Hare

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Ken Keller: On Business & Life

Companies that have good strategies and know how to execute them will beat companies that have great strategies that they can’t pull off.

At many large firms, the sheer scale of the business hides inefficiencies and mistakes. We used to say that those companies “succeeded in spite of themselves.”

That’s less true these days. Ubiquitous adoption of smartphones and social media make it much harder to hide mistakes.

When a company screws up, video and pictures go viral the same day, and live forever in cyberspace.

Yes, I’m referring to United Airlines and their debacle last Sunday night at Chicago O’Hare airport.

A passenger, Dr. David Dao, was forcibly removed from a United Express Embraer 170 regional jet while the plane was at the gate, the jetway still attached and the main cabin door still open.

The incident, before takeoff to Louisville, Ky., received saturation coverage from old and new media alike.

The story was everywhere: print, cable news, broadcast networks, radio, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, and the list goes on. Semaphores may have been involved.

There are a lot of sides to the many stories about the passenger, the flight crew, the ground crew and the airport police. Others may turn out to be involved as the story unfolds.

After the passengers were seated on the full plane, United announced that they needed four passengers to give up their seats so that four United employees could travel to Louisville in time to serve on another flight.

After offering every passenger $400 and a night in a hotel with a ticket to Louisville on a flight the next day, the cash offer was increased to $800. There were no takers.

The United personnel used some sort of method based on an algorithm from the corporate office to determine which four passengers would be involuntarily bumped. Three of them left the plane but the fourth one refused.

The Chicago Airport Police were called and they forcefully removed the passenger from the plane.

I’m certain the airline had every legal right to ask, then force, the customer to leave one of its planes, despite the fact that he had a ticket that he had paid for and was sitting in his assigned seat.

United, like all airlines, pays lots of money to lawyers (in house and/or external counsel) to do their magic to protect the company.

Full terms and conditions of passage, called a contract of carriage, are somewhere in the fine print that no one except attorneys actually read.

One bit of that fine print worth noting: a passenger, seated and with seatbelt securely fastened, is not considered to have legally boarded the plane as long at it’s still parked at the gate with the door open.

I will bet, based on what was written and has been seen about how this passenger was treated, many lawyers will read, analyze, discuss, write and argue even more vigorously about that fine print over the weeks and months to come.

Much of that work will happen in front of another lawyer, maybe a panel of three or nine, wearing black robes and addressed as “Your Honors.”

What happened at O’Hare on April 9 was a failure of execution. Based on what I know, plenty of United employees failed at their jobs Sunday night.

Yes, these employees carried out the letter of their law, the policies of their employer. But they should be ashamed of themselves for the spirit with which they went about it.

Through their actions last Sunday, a few employees who did the wrong things managed to destroy considerable goodwill established by United and the rest of its employees. That damage will be very hard to undo.

Tom Peters wrote “In Search of Excellence,” one of the biggest-selling business books ever, in 1982. At its core, it’s about how a good organization executes its strategy, how it gets things done through its employees.

Back then, Peters didn’t happen to use United Airlines as one of his examples. Were he to update the book today, I doubt he’d even consider including them.

Peters summarized his book in three words: People, Customers, Action.

Do you have the right people working for you? Will they do right by your customers?

Do your people, policies and processes take care of your customers?

Are your people empowered to take positive action on behalf of your customers?

Since the sad tale of United 3411 first appeared, other stories have surfaced in the media about how United treats or sometimes mistreats its customers.

United CEO Oscar Muñoz has made conflicting remarks about what happened. He should have stated from the beginning that he owned the situation, apologized to all the passengers, and figured out what went wrong. I haven’t heard him do anything of the sort in any convincing way.

Let’s hope what happened last Sunday night at O’Hare never happens again. Once was more than enough.

Ken Keller is a syndicated business columnist focused on the leadership needs of small and midsize closely held companies. Contact him at [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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