At the beginning of the year, United Airlines said it was launching an employee training program that would transform its bloodied and bruised customer service image. The goal: be known as the most caring airline in the skies.
Please hold your laughter until I’m finished.
On Monday, a flight attendant for the new, more sensitive United Airlines did something so unconscionable that it made the forcible dragging of Dr. David Dao off an overbooked plane last year look like a warm and fuzzy embrace in comparison.
A United flight attendant insisted that a passenger stow her 10-month-old French bulldog in the overhead bin. Over the owner’s objections, the puppy went into the bin for a 3½-hour flight from Houston to New York. The flight attendant’s actions were a clear violation of United’s policies. When the plane landed, the puppy was dead.
What flight attendant would do such a thing?
Wait, what person would do such a thing?
You won’t be surprised to hear that the flight attendant in question had yet to go through United’s reeducation program. Since the incident, United has issued two apologies and said that, beginning in April, it will hand out brightly colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets, just to make it absolutely clear to flight attendants that there’s a living creature in the carrier.
“We have to be a customer-centric airline,” United Airlines president Scott Kirby told the Chicago Business Journal in January. “This is how we’re going to take our airline to the next level.”
I couldn’t agree more with United’s move to put an emphasis on customer satisfaction. So what was the first customer-centric, take-it-to-the-next-level order of business after the puppy’s death? Apparently it was to accidentally send a Kansas-bound German shepherd to Japan. More than 11,000 miles and about 48 hours later, the dog arrived in Kansas. The good news is that it was still alive when it landed back in the United States.
The puppy story is terrible and heartbreaking. It would have made headlines if it happened on any airline. But it happened on United, so instead it’s another high-profile blister on the heel of a company that has an abysmal record of treating customers — of both the two- and four-legged varieties — like lab rats. Of the 24 pet deaths that occurred on US carriers in 2017, 18 were on United.
But as you well know, this story is bigger than a little puppy or even a headline-grabbing giant rabbit, like the one named Simon who also perished on United last year.
Before I begin the obligatory rehashing of United’s parade of blunders, I think it’s important to understand why the poor behavior has persisted.
United’s basement-level customer satisfaction ratings persist because people are still flying United. If there is outrage, consumers are not adequately expressing it with their wallets. Last year there were calls for a United boycott following the Dao incident. The Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing piece that labeled United “kind of a dumb company,” and called for a boycott. A Facebook page sprang up, and a boycott United hashtag trended on Twitter.
But there was no boycott. It was status quo, therefore service remained status quo. Which in the case of United may involve an employee pushing your 71-year-old grandfather to the floor or another employee ignoring requests for help as a highly intoxicated man gropes you midflight.
Until its bottom line takes a sucker punch, there’s no impetus for United to make any serious changes to this culture of customer disdain.
In March 2017, it looked like an attitude-altering slap was coming. The American Customer Satisfaction Index scored United at the bottom of its ratings. This would surely grab the attention of most executives and send a clear signal that it was time to take action.
But the signal wasn’t clear enough. The following month, on April 9, Dr. Dao was brutally dragged off a United plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat on a flight from Chicago to Kentucky. The seat was needed to get a crew member in place for another flight. Dao needed to get home to see patients.
Millions clicked on cellphone footage of a howling and bloodied Dao being violently removed from the plane. It was a pivotal moment, and it was time for CEO Oscar Munoz to apologize. His first apology, a limp attempt to acknowledge the situation without casting blame or shame, outraged passengers and sent United’s stock price tumbling.
Munoz tried another apology the following day, acknowledging that it was “a truly horrific incident.” The public seemed somewhat more satisfied; United’s bottom line was unscathed.
A month later, United’s stocks had gained back their value, and then some. United also reported a 7.6 percent increase in passengers over the previous April.
Where were the promised boycotts and the outrage? Without a boycott, the brusque passenger treatment continued. A woman claimed she was forced to urinate in a cup while flight attendants “shamed” her. It sounded like a scene out of Abu Ghraib prison.
A mother from Texas was forced to hold her infant on her lap for a three-hour flight, even though she had paid nearly $1,000 for the child’s ticket. United sold the child’s seat to a passenger on standby because a gate agent had inaccurately scanned the child’s ticket.
With each gaffe the airline apologized and offered a vague promise that United would “look into the incident.” Then radio silence, until the next bungle.
With the tragic death of the puppy there is another round of apologies, and another threat of legal action, and more cries for boycotts.
Sadly, I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that this will be little more than a hiccup in United’s operations. History shows that any upset will pass. As an animal lover, I am outraged but also defeated. There will be another gaffe and another apology instead of a significant change in the airline’s culture. Each apology is issued as if the airline just experienced its first infraction. Seldom, if ever, do we hear an acknowledgment that there is something intrinsically wrong with the culture at United.
This brings us back to United president Kirby and his slightly naive plan to make his company the most caring airline in the country.
I don’t need to be flying the most caring airline. I just want to be flying an airline that treats me, and French bulldogs, better than a lab rat.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chris_muther.