This morning, I pontificate.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing and speaking about the serious erosion of fairness during college disciplinary processes. The astounding incident that took place on a United Airlines flight this week sadly reveals that the erosion of fairness is becoming all too common in many aspects of our daily lives.
It is almost impossible for me to imagine that a passenger—a paying customer—who refused to voluntarily give up his assigned seat so some United employees needing to be repositioned could be flown his place, would find himself forcefully (some have characterized it as violently) removed from the flight by several very large, very menacing airport or airline security agents. But it happened. What I have found to be almost inexplicable is that United continues to look for ways to justify its behavior, grounding the justification in what I would call an extremely warped view of what is fair.
Let me confirm that I have seen multiple versions of the video footage that is online showing the incident in progress, and showing the passenger with bloodied lips and mouth standing in the airport, looking shocked and bewildered after being dragged off the plane. Let me add that United certainly has the right to say “its employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” if it wants to, although I find it unfathomable that among United’s established procedures is one that authorizes United’s security force to bloody up a passenger who refused to up his seat to an airline employee on demand by United, or to forcibly drag him off the plane. Indeed I would characterize this conduct as nothing more than mean spirited, aggressive behavior that looks an awful lot like an unlawful arrest of someone who committed no identifiable criminal act!
I am an experienced crisis manager, and I know that one of the first rules of thumb when responding to a crisis is don’t make it worse by trying to justify misconduct. United apparently does not subscribe to this rule of thumb. Instead, United immediately attempted to justify this egregious behavior by essentially claiming it had no choice but to remove the passenger after it tried, but failed, to incentivize passengers to voluntarily give up their seats by offering them a voucher and overnight hotel. That notion was not well received by the public. Then, seeking to convince an already unconvinced public that its behavior was justifiable, United next argued that it randomly selected the passengers it would force off the flight, thus its process in selecting the passenger it, in turn victimized, was at least a fair one. In our crisis management practice, we warn clients to avoid playing the fairness card unless you have in fact, acted fairly. I can confidently opine that in arguing this version of fairness, United completely failed to recognize that there literally is nothing that can be perceived as fair about forcibly removing from a plane, any paying customer with an assigned seat, to accommodate airline employees—ever! The argument cannot overcome the simple notion that the customer always comes first, especially in a service industry!
So I have been wondering—is all of this really so hard for United to comprehend, and does United really believe that its paying customers have some obligation to resolve its employee scheduling problems for United? Well United, worsening the crisis for itself (in my not-so-humble opinion), United has answered these questions through its subsequent conduct.
In response to my first concern, the answer is yes—it really has been difficult for United to comprehend the extent of its unfairness and bad behavior. Rather than take ownership of both—and stand accountable—United inexplicably decided to blame the passenger for its bad behavior. Oscar Munoz, the airline’s CEO, released a statement in support of the forcible removal of the passenger, describing him as “belligerent and disruptive.” Really Oscar, how did you expect this passenger—your customer— to react when he was told he was required to get off the plane after your snazzy incentive offers failed to incentivize him to volunteer to deplane? Did you think he would say “no problem” or “who cares if I miss a vital appointment at my destination”? Of course he was belligerent when he was told he had to deplane—he simply wanted to receive what he deserved to receive and what he paid for—a plane ride in the seat he was assigned to a destination he needed to get to. And if I were in that seat, and needed to get to the destination, I most certainly would have become fairly belligerent when I discovered that United was hell-bent on subordinating my need to get where I was going, to its employees’ need to do so.
In response to my second concern, the answer is yes—United apparently does believe that its customers really are obligated to resolve its employee scheduling problems. This belief apparently is so strong that it has caused United to conclude that it is fair and appropriate to treat a customer who refuses to do so as if he was a criminal deserving of a violent arrest, and further deserving of a subsequent labeling by United as being “disruptive.” That was a really bad move, United, crisis management-wise.
The public appropriately was outraged by this unfair act of blaming the victim to justify United’s already condemned behavior. Celebrities spoke out, United’s stock took a big hit, and the public reacted vocally across social media channels. And just when I thought we had seen the bottom of United’s “unfairness well” (not to mention its narcissistic brand of crisis management), it appears that may not be the case. I am forced to wonder whether the reports I saw yesterday—that the passenger has a criminal history—emanated at United, or from United operatives. If it is revealed that this smear campaign–an ultimate act of unfairness–was in any way created or sponsored by United, I will be the first to characterize it as being among the most absurd crisis management decisions I have ever seen. After all, whatever this passenger may have done in the past, had nothing whatsoever to do with United’s decision to yank the man off the plane, when it did, or in the manner that it did.
The first step to regaining the public’s trust is for United to admit that forcibly removing the passenger in question from the plane was completely wrong, UNFAIR, and entirely unacceptable—PERIOD. Sadly, I highly doubt that United will do so.
I don’t know if the passenger plans to take legal action against United. I would suggest to him that he should consider doing so. The uproar of co-passenger witnesses to the event, a very vocal, upset public, and falling stock prices have not caused United to see the error its ways, or to be accountable. Perhaps it will take a solid dose of litigation to teach United the true meaning of fairness, and hold it accountable for its failure to learn that true meaning, before now.