United Airlines’ Defining Moment…


Look for the Goodwill Gestures

After all the bad publicity about how United Airlines’ overbooking caused a customer to be dragged from the seat he paid for and wanted to remain in, United is trying something new: Goodwill Gestures.

Background: United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially believed the customer had it coming to him for battling overbooking. But the negative uproar caused Munoz to have, in his words, a “defining moment” followed by promises that United would be nicer, as in having buckets of goodwill gestures when it screws up. Here is part of his letter sent to fliers like me:

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.

United has been getting very low marks on independent consumer satisfaction surveys. Consumer service went further downhill after the Continental merger with United. It was a turbulent ride for consumers because ticketing systems and corporate cultures were far from compatible.

How did “lost bags” get into Munoz’s defining moment? In addition to knocking out a couple of his teeth, did United also lose the poor guy’s luggage? Anyway, Munoz included lost baggage, which probably means United has been losing a lot of it.

But let’s assume Munoz had a transformational experience that converted him into a consumer-friendly CEO. In the spirit of welcoming him aboard, suggestions:

1-Tell all United employees about the new goodwill policy. I have randomly been calling United numbers I use. Not many United people know who Munoz is, nor have they heard of his “goodwill gestures.” The least informed are the farthest away, like folks in telemarketing centers in the Philippines who handle and often mangle millions of incoming calls from United customers.

2-Tell passengers right away and compensate them for delayed—not just lost—luggage. United has imaginative explanations about why luggage is not boarded: First or Business Class luggage loads last to make sure it comes off first, so there is not always enough room for it. Or, it’s the fault of luggage handlers, not United. (In the past year United twice failed to board my luggage. (My complaints got me $350 in credits.)

Checked luggage is tracked by bar codes assigned at check-in. If luggage isn’t loaded, United surely knows where the luggage is when the plane takes off. But passengers aren’t told until they don’t see their luggage with luggage clattering down the chutes after a flight lands. Why not tell customers during the flight that their luggage was not boarded? OK, fights might break out. How about immediately at the arrival gate by an attendant loaded with goodwill gestures?

3-Change “the friendly skies of United” line to “We’re trying to make the skies of United friendly again.” Honesty would differentiate United.

4- Wear a disguise and fly economy coach class once a month. Take notes. Tell us what happened and how fast you recovered.

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