CEO Makes Moves to Return United to Friendly Skies

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

Stung by the angry reaction to dragging a bloodied passenger off a plane, United Airlines has finally responded aggressively and adroitly. The air carrier went beyond apologies to announce tangible changes in policy and quietly settle with Dr. David Dao who was forcibly removed from his seat when he refused to surrender it to a United employee.

In full-page newspaper ads and emails to United loyal passengers, CEO Oscar Munoz said the incident involving Dr. Dao occurred because "Our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they knew is right.”

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

After an internal study identified what went wrong and asked “How did this happen?” Munoz said “Fixing the problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us at United and, as CEO, it is my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

Whether Munoz was coached in his response doesn’t matter. He owned the fiasco and took responsibility to fix it. A lot of CEOs lack the courage to do that, preferring to pass the buck or make someone else the scapegoat. Kudos to Munoz for manning up to the crisis United Airlines faced.

Reforms Munoz announced included disallowing police officers to remove passengers for failing to give up their seats, increasing incentives for voluntary rebooking and eliminating red tape for reimbursing passengers whose luggage has been lost. Those commitments and others were posted at https://hub.united.com/united-actions-being-taken-2379920604.html.

Munoz went further:

"While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

"I believe we must go further in redefining what United's corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

"Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, 'I fly United.'"

Munoz admits the proof will be in the pudding. Will the airline and its 87,000 employees have learned the lesson and make flying fun instead of fearful? Only time – and the airline’s marketing department – will tell. 

Telling positive passenger stories is perfectly okay if they are genuine and live up to the words and actions of Munoz. His statement, maturity and actions have given United Airlines a chance to exit a dark space and return to the “friendly skies.”

Regrettably, it took days before United and Munoz came to their senses. If he had acted immediately after the incident, people would have remembered his quick action as much or more than the incident itself. Now, people will be watching with a skeptical eye at United’s performance. At least, after Munoz’ announcement, they have something to look at skeptically.