What the United Airlines Saga Can Teach Every Company

Countless factors led to the United Airlines failure, and countless interactions led to the public consensus that their customer experience is problematic.


Jana Barrett

April 13, 2017

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Turn on the news or scroll through your social feed this week and you’ll see at least one new headline about the United incident. Media outlets, lawmakers, and every corner of the internet have expressed outrage over the footage of a man getting dragged, bloody and shellshocked, off an overbooked flight Sunday evening.

In less than 24 hours, the incident erupted into a fiery brand disaster, with long-time United customers cutting up their loyalty cards, public calls for change, and an endless flow of memes and spoofs mocking the brand. The situation only worsened on Monday when United CEO Oscar Muñoz wrote a letter to his employees, seemingly blaming the passenger and defending the actions of his company.

By Tuesday, United stock had plummeted, costing the company around $1 billion. Muñoz then published a follow-up statement, apologizing and promising to review the policies and procedures for handling “oversold situations.”

But the damage was done. In a matter of days, public attitude had shifted.

These stories confirm what passengers already knew: United has a customer experience problem.

Other troubling stories soon began popping up about people’s experiences flying United. The tales of poor customer service interactions and profit-centric policies suddenly held a lot more weight after Sunday.

Most notably, the L.A. Times published a story that seemed to reveal a pattern. Just last week, another United passenger who’d paid for a first-class ticket was told he needed to get off a flight after boarding because a higher-priority passenger needed his seat. When he refused, the United employee allegedly threatened to handcuff him.

An interesting thing happened in the wake of all this. People seem to almost unanimously agree that United is a “bad” airline, and many shared personal anecdotes that back that opinion. Other people—many of whom have never even flown United—say they’ve avoided the airline because of the experiences friends and family have shared with them.

This raises a lot of questions about United, its customers, and the great divide that exists between the two.

For a company that saw 143 million passengers in 2016 and won the “Best Overall Frequent Flyer Program” 12 years in a row, that’s pretty shocking. Why did their protocol allow a man to be dragged from his seat and down an aisle? How can the CEO express shock and dismay over an incident that feels like the culmination of many years of poor customer experiences? Where and when did United miss the mark?

The Senate commerce committee published a statement asking the commissioner of Chicago O’Hare Airport for a full explanation of Sunday’s events and a list of the policies and procedures their personnel are supposed follow in “this type of situation.” They wrote:

We recognize the importance of having passengers comply with the lawful instructions of airline crews and law enforcement, but it is hard to believe that some combination of better planning, training, communication, or additional incentives would not have mitigated this particular incident or avoided it altogether.

The letter sums up in four words—planning, training, communication, and incentives—what is essentially United’s entire customer-facing business. Countless factors led to this one failure, and countless customer interactions led to this general feeling that the United experience is problematic. This one horrible event just got us talking about it loudly.

United isn’t the first to lose big because of one customer incident, and it won’t be the last.

It’s tempting to write off the United story as the consequence of a profit-hungry corporate ethos, but any company is at risk of face-planting. When you don’t continually examine your customer practices—and involve your customers in that process—you put your entire brand in jeopardy. Because today more than ever, customers define brands in a powerful and pervasive way. Lose one customer’s trust and you could potentially lose everyone’s.

The United of tomorrow will certainly be a different company. This incident will force the brand to reevaluate its entire customer experience and the negative brand perception it’s created over the years. Unfortunately, it took a violent wake-up call to make that need clear.

Companies should look hard at their own customer experiences.

Rather than dismiss this as another brand disaster and move on, companies should consider what their own future disaster might look like and take steps to avoid it today. If United had put an effective customer experience program in place earlier, they might have caught the consistent issues that led to this incident—and avoided it entirely.

Brands can no longer leave customer experience to chance. Customers have opinions that they’re ready to share, and their voices are louder than ever. When companies listen to them and prioritize them, they can deliver better experiences—and become better brands in doing so.

If you want to secure your company’s future, look to your customers first. Begin asking questions, even if the answers are troubling. Start showing your customers that you care about them as humans, not just numbers. And most of all, learn from your mistakes.

Read more about why customer experience (CX) matters more than ever.

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