Actions Speak Louder Than Words: That Letter From United Airlines

A s a result of the aftermath of a passenger being forcibly removed from an airplane by law enforcement officers and the series of events which transpired afterwards, Oscar Munoz — who is the president and chief executive officer of United Airlines — sent a letter out to customers of the airline; and I was one of the recipients.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: That Letter From United Airlines

This is the letter — with the title Actions Speak Louder Than Words — in its entirety:

Dear Mr Cohen,

Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.

Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?

It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.

Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s 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.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.

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.”

Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.

We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.

With Great Gratitude,

Oscar Munoz
CEO
United Airlines

Common Sense

The first thought which came to my mind after I read that letter was that much of what had happened could have been avoided by basic common sense. The system was broken — purely and simply.

I am not just blaming United Airlines. I believe that many airlines — and, for that matter, many companies in general — have lost their way as to why they are in business in the first place.

“For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?” That indicates to me a lack of awareness of how exactly customers are treated — as well as a significant disconnect which has been allowed to exist for some time. Creating policies and decisions in the boardroom on the upper floor of some building is very easy to do — if you are willing to deal with the vagaries of otherwise boring corporate meetings — but especially if you are either not going to be subject to them or exempt from them.

That has been my complaint over the years regarding the corporate and political worlds: we have so-called leaders charged with creating policies and laws with which they basically will not have to comply. Do you think that if Oscar Munoz was the passenger aboard the aforementioned airplane that he would have been asked to leave by an employee of United Airlines? If he refused to comply, would law enforcement officers have been called in to forcibly remove him?

Does this all boil down to the classic cliché of “Do as I say and not as I do”?

Trust

“Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes.”

That statement is incomplete, Oscar. A more inherent trust was broken long before that: the trust of your employees.

You stated that “We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new ‘no-questions-asked’ $1,500 reimbursement policy.”

Why was this not already a long-standing policy? Do you and other executives really believe that your employees will simply hand out incentives like candy? Have you even interacted with your employees?

Despite the immense pressure under which they work, I know many flight attendants and gate agents who are devoted to their airlines — reaching almost to the point of cult status. They are proud of their airlines; and proud to represent them. They will do whatever they can to ensure that the customer is happy and will want to fly their airline again. They understand that the customer is who actually pays their salaries…

…but when they are handcuffed by policies and procedures designed to limit losses — and, in the process, their good judgment — that is when things go wrong. You have to trust them to do their jobs. Give them the leeway they need to spontaneously decide how to resolve a problem or issue.

Yes, there are those employees whose decisions will not be in the best interests of the customer or the airline — but if they are good employees, they will learn from their mistakes. We all make mistakes. We are human. If they are unwilling or unable to learn from their mistakes, then perhaps their futures with the company should be reconsidered.

I have been personally involved in truncated versions of the intense training of flight attendants and have performed the actual duties of gate agents with actual customers — both multiple times. I have seen and heard the constant allegiance and pride these hardworking employees have and express for their employers. Trust them to do their jobs properly. Empower them to reach decisions on the spot when necessary. If one or two customers do get compensated $10,000.00 to volunteer to take a later flight, does that really impact the grand scheme of things of a multibillion dollar corporation? Believe me when I say that your employees will not turn that into a habit. They are protective of their jobs and proud of what they do every single day — even when some days are worse than others…

…but you had to learn that the hard way, Oscar? Did the airline really have to suffer a significant hit to its reputation and a temporary loss of its overall value from an incident which could have easily been avoided? Is that what it had to take for the light to finally shine on something about which many customers have known for years?

Trust is critical in any relationship — especially that between a multinational corporation and its customers, as I personally believe that trust is a vital key component in conducting business in general.

Reminding Ourselves of the Miracle of Flight

We can cherry-pick our arguments ad nauseum: gate agents and members of the flight crew who can tell countless stories of clueless, selfish and arrogant customers; and passengers who can recall experiences of shameful behavior on the part of airline employees. Some of the stories cross the threshold into the realm of unbelievable, as did the one pertaining to United Airlines…

…but we also need to remember that — for the most part — the experience of commercial flight is usually uneventful; safer than ever; and basically a miracle which at one time could not even be imagined. Hurtling through the sky at 600 miles per hour at 36,000 feet in the air over an ocean while being able to watch movies, eat a meal and sleep in the modern-day version of time travel — and not even really thinking about it?

Even if the flight lasts 20 hours, that is still a relatively short time to endure the trials and tribulations of commercial air travel. We are not talking about having hands and feet being locked in stocks while rowing at the behest of some medieval sadist, barely subsisting on bread and water while traveling to someplace against our wills. There is plenty to do aboard an airplane to keep our minds occupied — even if to simply walk up and down the aisles to ensure that our blood is circulating — until we reach our final destinations.

The experience may not be perfect by any stretch of the imagination — but it is also far from purgatory. The key is all about maintaining perspective in life and adjusting expectations accordingly.

Summary

At the risk of repeating myself, the missing component is having respect for each other.

I have said in the past that there was plenty of blame to go around pertaining to the incident which prompted the letter from Oscar Munoz in the first place; but I changed my mind about the actions of the passenger in question primarily because if not for that, the broken system would have remained in place. There are reasons why policies and procedures are in place; but they are not always perfect. They should not only be questioned by customers — they should also be reviewed by management and employees of companies to ensure that those policies and procedures are best for both the company and its customers.

In the ideal world, customers should be clamoring to patronize companies; and those companies should be profiting handsomely — but because the ideologies of companies and their customers can potentially conflict, there must be reasonable compromises which address and mitigate those conflicts…

…but those compromises cannot be achieved unless those people who are involved in creating the policies and procedures experience them in the real world for themselves. They have to be affected in order to see through the eyes of the customer and understand exactly how to proceed from there. This demonstrates an important aspect of leadership in which executives can model the way for others.

Corporate culture is another issue; and it is one which cannot be changed overnight — if at all. Matthew Klint of Live and Let’s Fly offers the perspective of a customer of a supposedly soured corporate culture in this article pertaining to a recent flight operated by United Airlines of which he was a passenger in the business class cabin.

Despite the best efforts of both employees of companies and their customers, there will always be some renegades in both camps who will do what they can to break the system — not necessarily to make a statement; but just because they can — and they contribute substantially to the problems with airlines and their customers. We all have to do what we can to ensure that we treat each other as civilly and as respectfully as possible to maintain the bed possible environment pertaining to commercial air travel — especially if that means saying please and thank you and mustering up a smile.

“Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, ‘I fly United.’” Although there are a few companies to which I prefer to patronize, I do not believe I have ever been “proud” to say that I am a customer of a company. I may recommend the company if I get exceptional service or a good product; but let us be real here: offer the customer a positively memorable experience; and that customer will most likely be retained.

It is as simple as that, in my opinion — but many companies seem to miss the mark anyway…

…and whether United Airlines lives up to the promises offered by Oscar Munoz in the aforementioned letter remains to be seen. After all, as Munoz stated in the title of the e-mail message: Actions Speak Louder Than Words.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

One thought on “Actions Speak Louder Than Words: That Letter From United Airlines”

  1. John D. says:

    So much of this incident has been painted as if it were only a problem with the airline industry. This is a Wall Street obsession with quarterly profits issue, nothing more nor less. In the book “The Last Lecture” the late Professor Randy Pausch describes an incident where, as a child, he dropped a present he had just bought for his parents at a Disney gift shop right after buying it. The $10 item was a complete loss. This was many years ago, when Walt Disney himself was still alive, and occurred at a time in America when employees used to be empowered to make decisions. He goes on to explain that Disney employees then participated in profit sharing, and like Costco and Whole Foods employees today, could act on behalf of the company management because they were part owners themselves. So the shop cashier gave him a replacement and did not charge him a second time. That decision so impressed his parents that they spent every year thereafter going on vacation to Disney World. A $10 loss turned into a win of over $100,000 in future earnings. He questions if Disney employees today would be empowered to make the same decision. The saying in Ben Franklin’s times was “Penny wise but Pound foolish.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *