There have been other bad work weeks in the history of the business world.
(Off the top of my head, “New Coke” comes to wind. M&M’s deciding it didn’t want to appear in the film “E.T.” probably wasn’t a great decision either.)
The difference between those companies and United Airlines is, they just weren’t part of today's 24-7-365 news cycle, nor were they subject to the public scrutiny of 1.2 billion daily Facebook users or the 319 million Twitter users who send 500 million tweets per day.
What’s done is done. United has taken an absolute beating (no pun intended) for its treatment of Dr. David Dao—the 69-year old doctor who refused to be rebooked from a flight after he had already boarded and taken his seat, only to be bloodied and dragged through the plane on his back by Chicago Aviation Police.
Now the question is, how does United Airlines move forward to regain public trust? Because the carrier isn’t going to lose money.
Oh no, it's not. You can start as many boycott hashtags as you want, but United Airlines is not going to suffer as a transporter of people and cargo at a relatively reasonable price. Especially in some areas of the country where it virtually is the only game in town.
But the court of public opinion does matter for immediate and far-flung future. Here is where United must start:
In the fall of 1982, it was discovered by authorities that someone had purchased several bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol from several different drugstores in Chicago and surreptitiously put them back on the shelves laced with cyanide. Seven people died, and a nationwide panic ensued.
Thought it was quickly determined that parent company Johnson & Johnson was not at fault, unlike United.
In what became a classic case study in public relations crisis management, Johnson & Johnson worked with the media, not against, took ownership of the situation, and disseminated its message clearly—from recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol at a cost of $100 million, to how it planned to better re-package the item for more security.
Needless to say, we’re still taking Extra Strength Tylenol 35 years later.
Will we still have enough faith to fly United? The airline completely botched the incident from the get-go, with a tone-deaf first response via spokesperson, then a tone-deaf second response from the CEO. Finally, a third statement, also from the CEO, finally expressed some "genuine" remorse.
In the future, United needs to cut the page out under the Tylenol entry in the “Textbook Crisis Management” pamphlet: Don't stall, and don't come off as combative or defensive when you screw up.
READ MORE: United Kicks Off Couple On Way To Destination Wedding
EMPATHY AND A WIDE BERTH
United needs to teach its employees the art of empathy—and then, more importantly, allow them to put it into practice.
Heck, virtually all US airlines have such strict policies and procedures that it leaves little room for crew members, gate agents and other front-of-the-house employees to ‘freelance’, that is, to make decisions on their own without fear of reprisal.
There are a lot of good people working for airlines who are intelligent problem-solvers. Allowing them to be empathetic to a situation helps create positive resolution.
In retrospect of the Dr. Dao incident, United changed its policy on crew members dead-heading and taking somebody’s seat, while Delta upped its cap on re-booked passengers to offer them up to $9,950.
Tell me there wasn’t an employee on the ground for United who already thought of upping the ante to entice more passengers to voluntarily give up their seat but was handcuffed by United’s rules?
READ MORE: United Employee Reminds Us No Airline is Totally Evil
OVERHAUL CUSTOMER SERVICE
United, along with American and Delta airlines, has been embroiled in a virtual aviation war with Middle East Gulf airlines Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. In short, the US-based carriers belief their counterparts receive government subsidies, allowing the Gulf carriers to expand with new routes while offering elegant, luxurious seating and suites in the air.
The US Big Three believes this unfair advantage alters the international travel marketplace.
But that’s not it.
It’s the service, stupid. Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Singapore, Cathay-Pacific and numerous other overseas carriers offer impeccable service and treatment of passengers.
In the end, this is a service business. United and other US-based carriers might learn a thing or two from their adversaries and competitors if they just watched and learned.