Message to United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz

As if flying isn’t enough of a hassle, United Airlines has made every passenger in every flight around the world a little more uncomfortable in their seats until the plane is in the air.

Unless you’ve been hibernating from all media feeds, you’ve likely seen the video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. It’s almost frightening to watch, as the passenger is being yanked out of his chair. Here’s a very simplified recap of what happened:

  • United needed to make room on a full plane for some of its employees.
  • Not enough of the passengers agreed to take United’s offers to give up their seats to accommodate the United employees.
  • United “randomly” (they applied a set of internal rules, I think) selected a passenger to remove from the flight.
  • The selected passenger, who had paid for his flight and was sitting on the plane, did not want to give up his seat.
  • Security agents yanked the passenger out of his seat and violently dragged him out of the plane.
  • United CEO Oscar Muñoz issues statement describing the incident as “re-accommodating” passengers and seeming to provide some justification for the incident.

My take: There’s no excuse for this. None. There’s no grey zone, no “maybe’s,” no alternative interpretations. Even if United had the “legal right” to force this passenger from the plane, it was still wrong. If you can’t entice a passenger to get off the plane to make room for one of your employees, then you need to add more to your offer, or you “re-accommodate” your employees.

If customers can’t trust a company to deliver the products or services that they purchase, then the company’s brand has no value. This is the minimum requirement for any brand.

Here’s some of my advice for Mr. Muñoz:

  • Adjust the way you react to situations so that your first reaction to any situation is to show empathy and compassion for your customers.
  • Make a commitment to customers, and make it clear to everyone in your organization, that paid passengers who don’t want to give up their seats will never be forced to give up their seats.
  • Make it clear to customers, employees, investors, analysts, and anyone who cares to listen that this is unacceptable behavior and that you are taking personal accountability for this issue. Learn how to master our C.A.R.E.S. model for service recovery.
  • Acknowledge that you have a systemic problem… with your customers and employees. Would this ever happen at Southwest Airlines? United Airlines ranked 224th out of 331 companies in the 2017 Temkin Experience Ratings and its rating is likely dropping by the minute.
  • Fix your problems… United needs to make improvements across what we call the Four CX Core Competencies: Purposeful Leadership, Compelling Brand Values, Employee Engagement, and Customer Connectedness.

The bottom line: United and Mr.Muñoz need to take decisive action.


About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

9 Responses to Message to United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz

  1. Robert Eddy says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more Bruce… a company and their brand need to stand for or mean something to their customers. United has (for years) consistently missed (or ignored) this essential fundamental dynamic in their interaction with passengers.

  2. Richard P says:

    I agree with this, however the actions following this incident say much more about the culture of the airline. Deflection of blame, and then back door PR digging and communication on his past, and character are nothing short of heinous.

  3. Thanks Bruce for a spot on, mature response to this horrible incident. There are always details that come about after the media firestorm of such stories … but I can’t imagine any detail (beyond the passenger threatening harm to someone) that would warrant such behavior.

    I really appreciate your counsel to Mr. Muñoz as well. For the sake of all travelers, let’s not permit him to forget about this incident and the further damage he and some of his employees have done to United’s fragile brand.

  4. averill stevenson says:

    Oh, I was reeling with CX horror as I watched this incident and the fallout unfold. I have been waiting for someone in the CX community to address it. Yes, your are spot on. I listened to a piece this morning on NPR where game theorists posited alternative scenarios regarding interacting with customers in regard to getting buy-in from them when bumps are deemed necessary. Have a listen:

  5. I agree. In one year from now you should invite Mr. Munoz to present his case and the follow up events to see if United learned from its mistakes.

  6. Kim Hamer says:

    I have one more suggestion for the Oscar Muñoz — empower your employees to serve your customers. I have faith (maybe misplaced) in people and I can’t imagine that this action was considered ok by all the employees present. Imagine if several of the employees had the power to say, “Sir, we’d like to have your seat so we can get our staff to where they can help others get to where they can be of service to other passengers. We made a mistake and hope you will be willing to help us. For your helping us to help others, we’d like to offer you …. a $5,000 voucher, or a first class round trip ticket, or a weekend in trip to Hawaii plus we will book you first class to your current destination on a different flight.” “Thank you for helping us to serve many.” Giving employees the power to ‘make it right’ is what Zappos and many other companies do. And it would have avoided this mess.

  7. andrewthak says:

    A nice write-up, except for not pointing out that the security agents were City of Chicago, not United. And that Southwest Airlines bumps passengers at a higher rate than any major airline (more than twice as much as United last year And that United was legally mandated to get that crew to Louisville so that a flight the next day would have a crew and not have hundreds of people stranded there. United is not free of blame here — yes they should have upped the offer, yes the CEO’s reaction was hamhanded — but when a pilot asks you to leave his plane, you leave his plane. Waaaay too much focus on United in all of this and not nearly enough on Chicago Aviation Security’s brutality, and too many write-ups like this that don’t have all of the facts straight. No, I’m not a United employee and I fly them occasionally.

    • RockAnnand says:

      I think you miss the point. If the customer does not want to leave, forcibly removing should never be an the option under these circumstances. Never. So now we will always be thinking of the United motto: “Fly the Friendly Skies of United”, unless we want to bump you and you refuse, then we call in the security agents to remove you and multiple millions of twitter and youtube views later … The facts you sight are really irrelevant. It does not matter what their bumping policy is or how much they offer. The only fact that matters is the impregnated vision millions now have of what United might do to you.

  8. R. Robbin says:

    I will never “voluntarily” purchase a ticket to fly United again. Thankfully we have alternative choices. As a frequent traveler I am left sickened by this event and the inhumane response by the airline. We all agree this is inexcusable and my way of expression is apparently the language they acknowledge – hitting their bottom line. United should think about rebranding their organization as their name is seemingly false advertising. Perhaps calling their airline “Caveat Emptor” would be more suitable.

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