Reflections on the United Airlines Upheaval

By April 19, 2017 March 19th, 2019 Evolve Insights

As it appeared in the Daily Nation on April 18th, 2017

I have worked in the airline industry and I have been a United Airlines passenger. One of the biggest headaches that ground staff have to deal with is that of an overbooked flight. Overbooking and eventually bumping off passengers is common in airlines. Overbooking aims at maximizing profits by catering for the no shows or late comers. However, sometimes more passengers than the flight capacity show up on time. During my first month in the industry, I recall we had a series of overbooked flights that resulted to over 50 passengers that could not travel. It was a tough experience but I can promise you we never dragged any passenger out of a Kenya Airways (KQ) aircraft.

In the last few days, United Airlines (UA) has caused uproar and this is not the first and most likely not the last time that the airline makes news headlines for the wrong reasons. Dealing with customers who need to give away their seats is always a delicate process. I recall having to deal with a bumped off passenger who was travelling to attend a funeral and we made a decision to re-route him through other airlines. The handling of the United Airlines’ passenger who refused to trade off his seat left many baffled! Why would any human being have to go through such an experience? Was that the best alternative for the 69-year-old customer? The handling of the passenger was crude. To add insult to injury, the bumping off was to give space to the airlines’ staff.

Front-line staff are trained and tasked to manage every difficult situation. This is not always easy especially when the customer is rightfully demanding a service. Some of these circumstances are created elsewhere. In the case of United Airlines, the staff asked for security reinforcement. Was this the best they could do? I always advocate for a process of escalation for situations that are likely to get out of hand. The escalation starts internally. I wonder if the united airlines staff escalated the situation internally before security was called in. Did the staff expect that the passenger would be dragged out and injured in the process? Unlike in the case of UA, I have witnessed customers voluntarily trade off their seats. At KQ for example, the process of requesting for volunteers by the check in staff is straight forward. In addition, extra passengers do not get anywhere near the boarding gates and therefore, such drama is easily avoided

After the incidence, the CEO’s initial response further intensified the social media uproar leading to an outcry for passengers to boycott UA. The CEO said it is important for staff to follow established procedures and empathized with them. I wonder if the UA procedures requires a passenger to be dragged out of the aircraft by security. For a CEO credited as a top communicator, the initial response was a disgrace to humanity. A follow up response was more empathetic to the passenger. Finally, the CEO like many of us agreed that no one should ever be mistreated that way. Unfortunately damage to the brand had already been done. The UA passenger experiences have come under scrutiny many times. Only time will tell whether the airline will come out of the current upheaval weaker or stronger.

Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy