By Tom Garrity, President, The Garrity Group 

We are all too familiar with the very high profile set of circumstances featuring United Airlines earlier this week.

Recap: A United Airlines flight is full and is about to depart from Chicago to a west coast destination. The airline needs to remove four passengers to make room for a flight crew so they can get to Louisville. One of four passengers refuses to give up his seat and is forcibly removed by Chicago police, at the request of United. Passenger is screaming, bloodied and the event is all captured on mobile phones. Video is uploaded to YouTube and there is immediate social media backlash.  United CEO apologizes for “having to re-accommodate these customers.”  In a subsequent message to employees, the CEO calls out the passenger in the video as being “disruptive” and “belligerent.” Nearly 40 hours after the incident, the CEO posts a more heartfelt apology in a statement that is posted on Twitter. The publically traded company loses $950 million in market capitalization, a direct result of poor communication.

There is a lot of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” criticism concerning the way United Airlines handled the situation. What it all boils down to is the teachable moment: show compassion to the victim.  

Lesson learned?  Only time will tell.

If you are the United Airlines CEO, now what?  What can you do to regain trust of the customer?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Commit to meaningful change.
  • Convene a public listening session with a cross section of United customers.  The goal should be to hear from the customers about what United does well and where it needs to improve.  It has to be public and conducted like a “till you drop” news conference, where you don’t leave until every question or comment is heard.
  • Within 24 hours, identify ways you will implement changes based off the input from the listening session.
  • Simplify the contracts that govern passenger tickets. The Wall Street Journal has a very insightful story highlighting that United’s 46-page contract is only surpassed by Delta’s 51-page agreement.
  • To the extent it doesn’t hurt long term profitability, scale back on the changes to economy seating and do what you can to make the airline “likeable” among the common flyer.
  • Work with all of the flight unions to reach some agreement on how changes to labor agreements can further benefit the passenger.  Be very public with this.
  • Have the United CEO Oscar Munoz commit to flying in coach, specifically economy (not economy plus) when he uses the airline for business travel.

Because my parents live in North Houston, I typically fly United. Though I am also an A-Lister on Southwest Airlines, with the most connections out of Albuquerque. I travel a lot. United should send secret shoppers on Southwest and on Alaska Air.  Those are the airlines that are public about how they “do the right thing.”  Learning from your competition is not a bad thing.  After all, we’ve all just gone to crisis communications school on United Airlines.