Unless you’ve been completely isolated from society for the last couple of weeks, you have probably heard about the incident on United Express Flight 3411. But if you somehow did manage to miss this one, let me briefly recap: As is the usual practice United Airlines had overbooked Flight 3411. Despite several inducements, no one volunteered to disembark and United Airlines sought the assistance of some heavy handed Aviation Security agents to remove a passenger. Video footage emerged of the passenger being dragged, seemingly unconscious and with a bloody nose and mouth, from the aircraft.
The response to the video was swift, and United Airlines was almost universally condemned for the action. People were so appalled that the company lost nearly $1 billion off its share price in just a few days. In the aftermath, other passengers, United and anyone with an opinion (I guess that includes me) have thrown in their two cents worth. Regardless of whether or not you believe the passenger was calm or irate, or if the security response was appropriate or not, one thing has become clear: there has been a lack of leadership from the very beginning of the incident.
The Chicago Tribune has consolidated the four official responses from United (to date). The first three statements go from no real accountability for the incident to hiding behind the passenger’s behaviour and the process to finally accepting that things went wrong and committing to investigate how to ensure it cannot happen again. These three varying statements suggest a lack of strong leadership from the very beginning of the incident.
In a world dominated by social media, a story like this can spread faster than wildfire and it becomes very difficult for the spin doctors to contain it. Even if United believed they were in the right, it was clear from the very beginning that they needed to step up and take full responsibility for investigating how this occurred and what would need to change to ensure it never occurs again. This would have taken some courage from the leaders at United, but it would have clearly demonstrated their outrage at the incident and their commitment to treating their customers with respect and dignity.
So what could have been done differently? For starters, the leadership at United should have been ready to commit to investigating the incident immediately and to provide regular updates on the outcomes. The messaging should have been consistent and they should never have tried to shift focus to the customer’s behaviour. Their leadership (and their communication) should have created a stronger link to, and behaved in accordance with, their values of respect and dignity. Finally, United need to follow through on their public commitment to change what needs to be changed to ensure this does not occur again.
Regardless of what they did, the leaders at United would have received some heat. But with stronger leadership right from the very start, the heat and the damage could have been minimised.