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Sometimes, the rules will not save you

Bill Coffin | April 10, 2017

In the span of two weeks, United airline has had two social media moments of its own creation that did not look particularly good in the eyes of its customers.

In the first case, what happened was at the end of March, a family was boarding a flight, but two young ladies in the family were both denied entry to the plane because they were wearing leggings. The airline deemed this attire inappropriate—even though the young women’s father went on wearing shorts—and that touched off a pretty robust moment online from folks who did not care for an airline determining what is and what is not proper for passengers to wear. Now, I remember a time when you actually dressed up to go on a flight, but those days are long gone now, and seeing people flying across the country in their pajamas is not unheard of. So, what gives with the leggings?

It turns out, the passengers were actually “pass riders,” United personnel or their dependents who fly on standby for free. This is a little-known arrangement outside of the airlines themselves, but the bottom line is you get to fly for free, but doing so, you are considered as brand ambassadors, so the airline reserves the right to deny boarding privileges if you are not attired according to the airline’s pass rider dress code. This is not a technicality. United—like any other airline with a similar program—takes this seriously, and they exercised it in this case. The young ladies dressed in different clothes and got on the plane. End of the day, United enforced a policy clearly written in its Contract of Carriage—a thick document that you agree to whenever you fly on United, but which reads like the often-overlooked Terms of Service that comes with any piece of software you own. You do read your Terms of Service to the letter, right? Of course, you don’t. And you don’t read your Contract of Carriage, either.

The Contract of Carriage is a much bigger deal in United’s second incident, on April 9. United apparently overbooked Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville in one of those situations that reminds me why I so much prefer to take the train, rather than fly. United needed to get four people off the plane. Nobody wanted to leave, so United offered $800 vouchers to anybody who would voluntarily take the inconvenience of rescheduling their flight. Still, nobody bit. So, United determined four passengers at random for involuntary deplaning. One of them was a doctor who claimed he had patients to see in Louisville, and was not interested in taking a different flight. United took that under advisement and had personnel literally pull the doctor from his seat, drag him down the aisle, and off the plane. The incident was filmed by other passengers, which you can see here, or if you simply Google “United passenger dragged”.

This created another social media uproar, to which, 24 hours later, United’s public response to it consists of a 68-word following media release in which CEO Oscar Munoz apologies for having to “re-allocate” some customers.

Even by emergency PR standards, this is pretty weak, especially the use of the term “re-accommodate,” which is about as ugly a euphemism as one can employ to describe dragging a screaming passenger off a plane against his will.

The only defense for United’s actions so far is again its Contract of Carriage. Point 25 describes in detail how much the airline is willing to pay to entice passengers off of an oversold flight, but it also reserves the right to deny boarding to passengers trying to get on to an oversold flight. What it doesn’t do is describe what actions it will take to resolve too many passengers on a plane, especially when the overage is due to a problem of the airline’s own making. It’s common knowledge that airlines overbook flights to ensure full flights, so it should come as little surprise when passengers have zero sympathy for the airline’s overbooking headaches. The decision to randomly select four passengers and force them off feels a lot less like customer service and a lot more like Hunger Games, and while United says it’s working on making things right with the passenger it dragged off, perhaps it would have been better to figure a way out of that situation that never involved lying hands on a customer.

There is a code of conduct issue at hand here. United’s own Code of Ethics and Business Conduct details lots of things, but handling an overbooked flight with decency and humanity is not one of them. The word “passenger” only appears once in the entire document, and even then, only in the context of avoiding a potential bribery situation. Sometimes, what matters more isn’t what is in a code of conduct, but what is missing from it. United has some updating to do here.

Hopefully, United will be more forthcoming over how this situation came to pass and what steps it will take to make sure it does not repeat itself. But in the meantime, this is a good case study in internal codes of conduct and how you communicate them across the enterprise. United didn’t break any laws here, but it surely walked into some kind of civil litigation, not to mention a bushel of bad press. And as we march further into the age of social media, internal and external compliance policies have to be designed and implemented with public visibility in mind. If the rules make sense to you and not to the public, those rules might need some fine-tuning. Or at the very least, a whole lot of surrounding communication so even your most uninformed detractors can understand the matter at hand. United hasn’t done that to anyone’s satisfaction.