Like many frequent United travelers, I received a note via email from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz on April 17.
In my forthcoming book, Brand Under Fire, I describe the elements of an effective apology. Let’s quickly analyze the Munoz message about the infamous Flight 3411.
- Did United accept responsibility for its role in the crisis? Mostly. CEO Munoz says, “In addition to offering my profound apologies to the customer forcibly removed, as well as all the passengers aboard that particular flight, I also offer my sincere apology to you for not living up to the values you expect of us.” United is no longer blaming the victim or talking about “re-accommodating” passengers. It seems to recognize that the debacle was self-induced. Mr. Munoz’s first apology back on April 10 was directed at other passengers, but not to victim Dr. David Dao.
- Did United make a sincere apology? Eventually, yes.
- Did United make amends to the injured parties? Still working on it.
- Did United articulate the ways it intends to avoid repeating the mistakes in the future? Yes, the message says it is committed to making sure “nothing like this ever happens again.” It explains that in the future, law enforcement officials will not remove passengers for reasons other than flight safety, crew booking on flights will be required earlier to avoid bumping paying passengers, and employees “will be empowered to put our customers first.”
- Did United use the experience to contribute to new safety protocols, new technology, improved standards, scientific discovery, or developments from which others can benefit? We’ll see. United says it will review and improve training programs and communicate the results of the review and corresponding actions by April 30.
Will this message get the job done? Unfortunately, the message was sent April 17, far too late to effectively counteract the damage from Dr. Dao’s removal from the plane on April 9. Based on early research, public sentiment toward United is strongly negative. As for CEO Munoz, it remains to be seen if his board and his customers will forgive his slow and clumsy response to the crisis. He seems to have learned much from the whole painful experience. I wish him well. The court of public opinion may well deliver the final verdict.