In Focus: Does United Flight Incident Point to Employee Training Issues?

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Disturbing videos recently went viral that show a United Express passenger being forcibly removed from his seat on an overbooked flight on April 9. This left some people wondering if flight staff are properly trained to handle escalated situations or empowered to make critical decisions as circumstances arise, two key areas that typically fall under HR's umbrella.

Public Outcry

The airline apparently needed four seats for staff on an overbooked flight, and when no one voluntarily gave up a seat, passengers were randomly selected to get bumped off the flight. Videos spread across the Internet showing one of those passengers being dragged from the plane by security officers after he refused to give up his seat. The videos revealed that the man's glasses had been knocked out of place and that he was bleeding. After the videos went viral, calls to boycott United Airlines ensued. Although situations don't usually escalate to this level, an expert commented that airlines typically reserve the right in their legal agreements with passengers to remove anyone from a flight and that it happens routinely. (NPR)

Is Company Leadership to Blame?

Top leadership is sometimes responsible for toxic corporate culture, and HR—like all other company employees—follows the guidance set from the top. In this situation, United's CEO, Oscar Munoz, potentially made matters worse through his initial responses. Munoz first approached the incident from the employees' side. He described staff members as "politely" and "apologetically" handling the situation with a "disruptive and belligerent" passenger. Munoz also said in a statement that the staff members "were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight." His initial statements failed to address the passengers' point of view, which "bodes ill for United's customer relations in the future," wrote Michael Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times. "For one thing, it may encourage intransigence among employees at the gate and on board in dealing with problems. This has been a long-standing issue with United." (The Los Angeles Times)

Pilot Blames Lack of Empowerment

"There is no reason that an overbooked flight should result in the forced, physical removal of a passenger by law enforcement," said pilot Patrick Smith on his Ask the Pilot blog. So why didn't anyone find a better solution? When flights are overbooked, airlines usually offer customers travel vouchers and guaranteed seats on another flight—as United did in this situation, though no one accepted the offer. Smith said that when the flight's staff reached the maximum rewards they were authorized to give away, they probably didn't know what to do next. "Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck," he said. Smith added that airline culture sometimes discourages creative thinking. (Ask the Pilot)

How United's CEO Should Have Responded

Had Oscar Munoz consulted with his HR and media affairs teams, he likely would have responded differently after the video went viral. "The company made a classic mistake of blaming the victim in their response," said Jeffrey Bell, managing partner at Gallatin Public Affairs, speaking to the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "The most important words you're going to say in a crisis are your first words," he said. "And that's where the statement by the CEO of the company just sent this into a tailspin—by speaking sort of corporatese, blaming the victim, not taking full responsibility, not offering an apology to the person that was impacted by this." (The Spokesman-Review)

CEO Promises Policy Review

Two days after the incident, Munoz did apologize to the customer who was removed from the plane and the other customers aboard. In an April 11 statement, he announced that an internal investigation would be launched to find out more about what happened on the flight.  "We are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again," he said in the statement. Could United have avoided the incident by offering larger incentives for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats? Munoz said the airline will review its policies for handling situations where it has overbooked a flight. But the incident already had an impact on the airline's stock value. By mid-day on April 11, the company's stock decline added up to over a $500 million loss in market value, although its value recovered a bit by the close of trading. (Chicago Tribune)

 

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