To Improve Its Image, United Airlines Needs to Get Better at Hospitality

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on July 11, 2017

When will United Airlines realize that it’s in two core businesses: the hospitality business in addition to the air transportation business?

United — which is a unit of United Continental Holdings (NYSE: UAL) — again appeared in the news and social media when on a recent flight from Houston to Boston passenger Shirley Yamauchi was forced to give up the adjacent seat occupied by her 27-month-old son to accommodate a standby passenger. Yamauchi and her son were traveling on a multiflight trip from Hawaii to Boston.

Yamauchi paid more than $900 for her son’s seat. According to the airline, the child’s boarding pass was scanned incorrectly by the gate agent. Within the computer system, the seat appeared to be empty, so it was given to a standby passenger.

In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Yamauchi said that when she told the flight attendant that the seats were hers, “She told me that the flight was full and she shrugged and that was the end of it.” Yamauchi was ignored. Not a very hospitable response to a customer and her child with a problem that needed to be addressed.

Yamauchi had to hold her son in her lap for the three-and-a-half-hour flight, a violation of FAA guidelines and United safety rules. Anyone who has interacted with a two-year-old knows they never sit still for three minutes, let alone for three-plus hours. Yamauchi stated that she developed loss of feeling in her legs and left arm during the flight.

Recalling the incident in which Dr. David Dao suffered a concussion, a broken nose and had his front teeth knocked out when he was dragged off a United flight to accommodate a United flight crew member in April, Yamauchi said, “I didn’t want [my son] hurt. Of course, I feared [for] my personal safety with everything I have seen with United Airlines. I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.”

Is this the image United wants its passengers to conjure up before discussing a problem with a flight attendant: Dao having his teeth knocked out and dragged down the aisle?

United faced a firestorm of criticism in the press and social media for what happened to Dao. Now they are again experiencing criticism for what happened to Yamauchi and her son.

Of course, United issued the obligatory apology. Continued mistreatment of passengers, however, speaks louder than words. The airline’s apology rings hollow.

In describing Dao’s experience, United CEO Oscar Munoz said in April, “[This] was a system failure. We had not provided our front-line supervisors, managers and individuals with the proper tools, policies and procedures to allow them to use their common sense…” Given the experience of Yamauchi and her son, United still has a long way to go.

It is critical that United’s employees have the authority to make decisions, even if they may violate policies and procedures while also not compromising safety or security, to ensure passengers get a great customer experience. Do United’s employees have this authority? If they do, why didn’t the flight attendant use it? It is critical that United hires employees who will be passionate about providing its passengers a great customer experience.

In the case of Yamauchi, it would have been very easy for the flight attendant to confirm that the seat her son was occupying belonged, in fact, to her son. To accommodate the standby passenger, the flight attendant should have gone through the standard procedure when a flight is overbooked – offering compensation to passengers to give up their seat and take a later flight.

United needs to make hospitality part of its core mission. This will differentiate the airline, improve its reputation and build competitive advantage. Great hospitality develops customer loyalty.

United should want to be known as the preferred choice of passengers, not the last choice. The airline has a long way to go when passengers are fearful of raising issues with their flight attendants.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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