United Airlines: '20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it'

Written by Jon Rowe 13/4/2017
Like millions of people around the world, I was shocked and outraged by the actions taken by United Airlines, as they violently dragged a passenger off of an overbooked flight only a couple of days ago. The reaction of the airlines' CEO, Oscar Munoz, has been bizarre and underwhelming to say the least. The need to issue an apology on more than one occasion, demonstrates just how disconnected he is from the passengers that opt to fly with his airline.
In my opinion, this situation identifies a wider problem that travellers face when dealing with airlines in 2017 and beyond. As airlines compete with lower prices and tighter profit margins, overbooking is becoming more common and the value of passengers as people is shamefully diminishing. The actions taken by United Airlines, show a total lack of respect towards their customers and the subsequent consequences will only be deserved and justified.
So, what can we learn from the undeniable failures of United Airlines?
Customers Come First
When running an airline, especially post 9/11, it's seriously important to ensure the safety of your passengers. United Airlines acted in the most inhumane way possible, making the passengers of said flight almost feel like they were 'taken hostage' with no way to get out of the situation. Travellers massively rely on their airline whilst travelling to take care of their safety and in this situation, United Airlines acted in the most inappropriate way, making passengers feel like they were under attack.
The experience that customers have of you and your business is obviously extremely important and as a service provider, it's vital that you seek to put the needs of your customers first. United Airlines, in this situation, put their customers at the bottom of the pile and only acted within their own interests. Despite the fact that it is completely legal to overbook flights, the ethics behind the strategy come into doubt and in this instance, the customers suffered as a product of the airlines mismanagement. Customers are people and businesses ought to treat them as such.
Reputation Is Everything
The days that followed the actions taken by United Airlines, saw shareholders selling off shares in the company, an abundance of negative reactions on social media and talk of customers boycotting the airline during the busy, Easter holiday period. The reputation of United Airlines has certainly been damaged in the short term and it's yet to been seen how the airline will be effected by this in the long run. The reputation of a business can dictate its success and as Warren Buffet once said, 'It can take 20 years to build your reputation and five minutes to ruin it'. Gaining the trust of the general public can be challenging but losing trust can be a total disaster for a business.
Maintaining your reputation is important and when things go wrong, which they inevitably will, it's even more important to respond in an appropriate fashion to resolve those issues. Oscar Munoz, in my opinion, drastically failed as a CEO to manage the situation effectively. He failed to fully sympathise with the passenger in question by initially overlooking the harm caused to the passenger, apologising for having to 're-accommodate' the passenger. He went on to blame the passenger, calling him 'disruptive and belligerent'. In an age where everybody has a smartphone and access to a mass audience via social media, it's essential that businesses work even harder to maintain their reputations because you can almost guarantee that any wrong doings will be recorded and shared. Customers are rightly empowered by social media and by sharing their experiences online, it can make or break a business almost overnight.
It will be interesting to see how United Airlines deal with this situation in the coming weeks and months but it is clear that to date, the company have not effectively managed the situation, putting the future of the company and it's reputation in doubt, over the long term. The company has provided a clear example of how not to treat your customers, as if it wasn't obvious already, and how not to respond when things go wrong.
Thank you for reading, I welcome any comments or observations.


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