Navigating the Not-So Friendly Skies

To say that United Airlines looked bad after the fiasco with the passenger who refused to get off a plane to make room for United employees is an understatement. Just two weeks before, there was an incident were two girls who were barred from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings.

Granted, the unexpected happens and you deal with it. And in United’s defense, the CEO apologized, promising a review of procedures. Still, what happened with United wasn’t just an unexpected thing. These two incidents are examples of what happens when rules and guidelines aren’t explicit and when the people who are supposed to represent the airline lose sight of common decency.

With the passenger who was forced off the plane, didn’t United have a protocol in place to get employees to where they needed to be, without bumping paying passengers? Many passengers planned their flights and paid for their tickets way in advance, so it’s no surprise that an offer of a voucher for a few hundred dollars wasn’t going to motivate them to give up their seats. But more importantly, why did United let all the passengers on the plane if they knew the flight was overbooked and they needed seats for the crew members?

This incident demonstrated a failure of epic proportions on many levels. And it also illustrates really vividly the need for a crisis plan for your business.

No matter what size your business is or what industry it occupies, it should regularly review all rules and protocol, especially those dealing with the public and your customers/clients. What are the rules? How are they communicated to your publics? Do you have a crisis communication plan in place to help you address a crisis when it occurs? Those are some of the initial questions that need to be asked. But also consider the following: Are the rules and protocol making it easier or harder for your customers to do business with you? Are customer-fronting employees properly trained? Is the correct information getting to such employees regarding rules and regulations? Let’s not forget the importance of communicating rules in a way that doesn’t alienate customers. While there may be a legitimate reason for the rule, if the reason isn’t clear to customers, your company will be seen as the bad guy.

A review of rules, procedures and crisis communication will help you see where potential problems can emerge. Once you see where the potential problems are, make the necessary adjustments, so they don’t become actual problems. In United’s case, not only should they have found out about an overbooked flight and handled it before people boarded, the airport employees should have been empowered to offer better incentives to encourage passengers to willingly give up their seats.

In addition, be sure to monitor what people are saying about your company on social media. Is it good? Bad? Don’t be so quick to poo-pooh negative posts as the musings of trolls. The information that people share online can be a gold mine for your company. Information shared on social media will help you to see what needs to be changed or adjusted. Of course, it also tells you what you are doing right in the form of positive posts.

The moral of United’s story is that all businesses should review internal procedures and external communications to see what needs to be improved or modified. While it may be inconvenient or costly to do so, it is better to learn what needs to be tweaked this way, than to see a viral video on social media featuring one of your customers being treated badly by your employees.

What do you think this debacle is going to cost United Airlines?