Don’t “Re-accommodate” Your Brand Equity
love travelling, but generally I hate airlines. I get the feeling that I am not the only person who feels this way. That very sentiment has echoed across social media after the story, and associated video, of a United Airlines ticketed passenger being violently removed from one of its flights went viral.
We have all heard about belligerent or impaired passengers who have been removed from flights, but this was different. It wasn’t a drunk or a someone ranting about a bomb. No, it was a doctor who had paid for a ticket, taken his seat on the plane, and wanted to make it home on time to keep his appointments.
Air travel is a tough business, often with razor thin margins. It’s an industry that is dependent on fuel prices, weather, efficiency in routes and filled seats. For those reasons, it has become common in the industry to over book flights with the understanding that statistically people will miss flights for one reason or another and as a result every seat will be filled on every flight. However, when all the passengers show up and there are more passengers than seats, airlines will offer incentives to travelers to take later flights. Those incentives may come in the form of a travel voucher, hotel stay, upgraded seat on a future flight, and sometimes cold hard cash.
Most times airlines will find someone who isn’t in a rush to get to their destination and seats will open up. The power of the free market will create a point where the incentives being offered will match the price that some traveler will take for the inconvenience of taking a later flight. I have heard that passengers were offered the maximum amount that gate employees were authorized to extend, but no one took it. In hindsight, it would have been wise to have procedures in place where airline personnel could get approval to offer more money. If estimates are correct, United Airlines lost $750 million in market cap as their stock price dropped by 4% because of this incident.
It seems like incrementally raising the incentive would have been much cheaper than the bad public relations and eventual settlement for the booted passenger.
Even if United Airlines was technically within its policy to bump paying customers for employees needed in another city, this is a textbook example of failing to protect brand equity and being penny-wise and dollar foolish. United Airlines’ tone deaf response on social media and the leaked internal memo to employees could have been avoided; along with using the phrase “re-accommodated” to describe a screaming and disoriented passenger being literally dragged off the airplane.
The market will determine whether United Airlines survives this. It may be a small blip or, United may be headed the way of the dodo, or in this case Pan Am. But this is a wake-up call for brands who consider optics paramount, and dragging a paying customer off a plane was bad optics for United.