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Reputation Checkup: Has United Learned from its Bad Behavior?

[By Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications]

After the violent debacle with Dr. David Dao’s forcible removal from a United flight in April, United has vowed a cross-my-heart better customer experience, but we haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that that’s happening. Complaints about the airline spiked after the Dao assault, and though United’s reputation tanked, it enjoyed a solid second quarter beating its projections. Third quarter projections look pretty good, too.

There are explanations for this seeming incongruity of profits and tickets sold going up — even as the traveling public’s opinion of United went down. Those explanations include rising demand for air service overall during this period and the fact that with fewer options to get from here to there, airline passengers hold their noses and book the cheapest flight.

There also is this: short-term financial results are just that – a short-term play. Reputation is a long-term play, and with little evidence that United is living up to its vow to improve, that sinking reputation could yet bode ill for the bottom line.

Simply put, while United continues delivering value to shareholders, it continues delivering misery to passengers – particularly Basic Economy passengers – and giant rabbits alike (more on the rabbit later). Repairing its reputation is a long-haul commitment, not just boilerplate language in a press release with no solid, ongoing actions to back up its promises.

United tries to paint a rosy picture while it continues tripping over itself in customer relations. Its Twitter feed is crammed with dreamy photos of faraway places and millennial-friendly intern photos. Its website offers press releases about improvements, but even the releases are not user friendly – good luck trying to read the 6-point font.

Until its actions match its words, United’s reputation will continue to suffer.

  • In recent weeks, it ordered passengers who attended Comic-Con to remove all comic books from their carry-ons because of a TSA rule. TSA says there is no such rule. “The restriction on checking comic books applies to all airlines operating out of San Diego this weekend and is set by the TSA,” United tweeted. TSA then sent out its own tweet noting that there are no restrictions on checking books.
  • United gave away a two-year old’s seat to a standby passenger, forcing the toddler to sit in his mom’s lap on a flight from Houston to Boston. She acquiesced, telling a reporter “I started remembering all those incidents with United on the news. The violence. Teeth getting knocked out. I’m Asian. I’m scared and I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want those things to happen to me.”
  • The owners of Simon the giant rabbit are now suing United, after Simon died in cargo on a flight heading to O’Hare from Heathrow on his way to be shown at the Iowa State Fair. United issued a boilerplate quote in its response to the issue, ““We are saddened to hear this news. The safety and well-being of all the animals that travel with us is of the utmost importance to United Airlines,” then cremated the dead rabbit without the owners’ permission, destroying any opportunity to learn the cause of the animal’s death.
  • United, like the maniacal King Joffrey of Game of Thrones, also keeps devising ways to make its own customers suffer. You can save a few bucks buying a “Basic Economy” ticket, but if you do, you can’t check in online. You can’t bring a carry-on. Forget about sitting with your spouse or kids, Basic Economy has no assigned seating. You’re the last to board and they offer you no upgrades. And you’re packed in like chattel for good measure.

The airline’s website says “United is focused on being the airline customers want to fly.” Yet they seem to be moving toward the business model practiced by TV’s Clampett family when, in an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, they ran an airline and immediately replaced all the seats with wooden benches so they could pack more passengers on the plane (fast forward to 17:21 in the episode).

If it intends to truly repair its reputation and live up to its customer service mission, United need to upend its corporate culture and back up its promises with concrete action.

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