United Airlines' Gross Miscalculations Will Cost Them Way More Than $800

04/11/2017 02:02 pm ET
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How could good public relations planning & training have helped United Airlines in the current crisis? What can it do from here? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jonathan Brill, 15 Years in Sales and Marketing with PR Experience, on Quora:

One problem I’d have with the way United Airlines has dealt with the case of their irate passenger if I was a shareholder is that they still haven’t made any clearly good decisions. This makes it seem like this wasn’t a case of poor training and preparation as much as just policy and personnel. Here’s a quick rundown:

One thing that’s clearly different in this case than most of the time when passengers are asked to give up their seats is that in this case, the passengers were already on the plane. They’d just gone through the fairly chaotic and always negative experience of boarding, finding a coveted luggage spot, and finding their seat next to strangers. This is mildly uncomfortable for most people, and once you’ve gone through it there’s a huge incentive to not have to do it again.

Because it was on the plane, the financial incentive they were offering ($800) was actually worth much less. People don’t always react rationally, and $800 offered in private in the comfort of the airport lounge is not the same as $800 after you’ve boarded, are seated and comfortable, and have the eyes of everyone on the plane watching you. For those who don’t wish to know they sold out for a price too cheap to move anybody else, whether to take the $800 is no longer a rational decision, but an emotional one. You’re now not only giving up your seat, you’re signaling publicly in front of strangers that the money matters to you. Other factors are things like: was the boarding process good and seamless? are the flight attendants pleasant and encouraging? do you want to go through all that again?

When they made the decision to take seats away from seated passengers, they conducted a public lottery for $800, and didn’t seem to have authorization to move off that number. Why? Delta just paid a family $11k to not fly to Florida.How much would United have paid knowing what was going to play out? No way I’m flying United. I’m not strapping myself to a metal tube and being shot into the sky with these people. They seem hostile and prone to poor decision making.

At some point, every single United employee was complicit in the decision that it made more sense to physically remove a paying customer from their aircraft in front of all the other customers, including children, first time United customers, and infrequent travelers. This had to be horribly traumatic and awkward for everybody else. In a very real way, all the passengers experienced what this passenger experienced. All because these people couldn’t pay more than $800.

Let’s say United wanted to compensate every other passenger minimally to improve sentiment towards the airline - how much would that cost? If they gave everybody a $100 travel voucher (which wouldn’t work - people would still be traumatized) it would cost them $13,000. How much would it have cost for them to just pay someone to get off voluntarily? $1500? $2000? It’s very hard to buy sentiment back for something like this.

The social media fallout has been severe. People like me, who only fly a few times a year, are far less likely to choose United from the smorgasbord of options shown to me on travel sites. My Facebook and Twitter feed is flooded with United memes - mostly of people on planes being shook or beat up. That’s United’s brand right now, and they’re not doing anything to make it better.

The obvious move from here is to overcompensate: over-apologize, over compensate the man it happened to (which serves the double purpose of heading off a potential civil suit). As long as I (and others) think of United as mean and dumb, a very dangerous and corrosive set of brand values - mostly commonly associated with bullying - they’re losing a lot more than whatever they’d pay this poor guy.

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