Common Sense: The Boycott That Wasn’t: How United Weathered a Media Firestorm

Common Sense: The Boycott That Wasn’t: How United Weathered a Media Firestorm

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Having recently completed a round trip from Newark to San Francisco on United, I wasn’t all that surprised that United appeared to be weathering the storm. When I booked my ticket, United offered the most convenient flight options at the cheapest fares, albeit just $12 or so less than American. So I booked on United, even though the Dao incident was fresh in my mind.

My experience bears out an adage about airlines: People almost always opt for convenience and price, even while complaining loudly about crowded planes and a dearth of amenities. And now that there are just four major carriers in the United States, thanks to years of industry consolidation, many passengers don’t have all that much choice.

“The barriers to customer movement are pretty high,” Mr. Winston said. “You’d think that consumer perceptions matter a lot, but given that the major carriers practically have a monopoly on many routes and airports, it’s not that easy to switch.”

That said, once on board, I found the experience surprisingly pleasant. The flight took off on time and landed early. The snack I wanted was still available even though I was seated toward the back. My video screen malfunctioned, depriving me of an opportunity to watch the movie “Hidden Figures.” But the flight attendant was so empathetic, and tried repeatedly to fix the problem (rebooting the aircraft’s entire entertainment system several times) that I ended up reassuring her that I was happy to read a book. She gave me a voucher worth 5,000 frequent-flier miles or a $100 credit on a future flight, which seemed pretty generous for a minor incident.

The return trip was even better. The plane was a mint condition Boeing 777-300ER, with an intriguing business-class layout I admired while on my way to coach. Back there, the seats were leather and unusually comfortable (even for someone as tall as I am.) The video equipment worked. I was surprised when a flight attendant offered me a complimentary meal. I told her it must be a mistake since I was in an ordinary coach seat.

A United spokeswoman told me the airline had begun serving complimentary meals and drinks on many transcontinental flights beginning July 1, but only for Economy Plus passengers. She speculated that there may have been some extra meals on my flight, or I may have been upgraded to an Economy Plus seat without my realizing it. And she said the plane was probably one of the airline’s 11 new 777-300ERs, which are being broken in on transcontinental routes before moving to international ones.

The United Airlines check-in desk at La Guardia Airport in Queens. The airline has vowed to improve the customer experience.

Credit
John Taggart for The New York Times

That flight also took off on time and landed early. (United said it had the best on-time arrival and departure performance of any carrier in the second quarter.)

Maybe this simply reflects diminished expectations, but after the remarkably stress-free flight, I wondered if it might be a good idea to fly an airline soon after an embarrassing episode like the Dao incident on the theory that everyone will be on their best behavior.

According to United, my experience wasn’t an anomaly, since the airline has put in a host of recent, post-Dao changes aimed at customer satisfaction. “To say we learned some lessons would be putting it mildly,” said Megan McCarthy, the United spokeswoman.

Besides the free meals and drinks in Economy Plus, United is now offering up to $10,000 in compensation for passengers who give up their seats on overbooked flights. These issues will be resolved before boarding so no one gets dragged off after taking an assigned seat. (United said “involuntary denied boardings” had dropped 88 percent in June from a year earlier.) When the airline loses luggage, customers will no longer have to provide receipts to prove the value of what was in it. The airline will provide up to $1,500 in compensation, no questions asked.

United has also set up a team based in Chicago to offer creative solutions to customer problems. Ms. McCarthy cited an example of providing a flight to a nearby airport and ground transportation to their destination if someone has been denied boarding on an overbooked flight.

After floundering for a few days after the Dao incident, Mr. Munoz seemed to get his mojo back. He apologized personally to Dr. Dao, and United settled with him on terms that, while they haven’t been disclosed, left Dr. Dao’s lawyer singing the airline’s praises. Mr. Munoz went on “Good Morning America” and said he felt “shame” when he saw the video. He apologized and vowed that it would never happen again on a United flight. In May, he took his mea culpa to Congress, where lawmakers used the opportunity to beat up on him for a host of perceived customer frustrations with airlines. “Ultimately our actions will speak louder than words,” he told them.

“That was the right thing to do,” said Steve Barrett, editor of PRWeek magazine. “They should have done it immediately. United made it a much bigger story than it ever would have been.”

PRWeek was thrust into the somewhat awkward position of criticizing Mr. Munoz’s handling of the affair less than a month after it had honored him as “communicator of the year,” the public relations equivalent of an Oscar, for his rehabilitation of the airline’s tattered image and for reaching labor agreements that had eluded United management for years. The magazine didn’t retract the honor, but after the Dao incident Mr. Barrett said, “The episode and subsequent response will be quoted in textbooks as an example of how not to respond in a crisis.”

When I spoke to Mr. Barrett this week, he acknowledged that no boycott had materialized and United’s bookings were holding up, helped in part by a series of incidents at rival airlines suggesting that United wasn’t any worse.

(This month, the conservative pundit Ann Coulter blasted Delta Air Lines for forcing her out of a preferred seat she’d booked on a flight from La Guardia Airport in New York to West Palm Beach, Fla. The airline refunded the incremental $30 cost of the preferred seat but accused her of slandering the airline and its employees.)

Still, United “has suffered considerable reputational damage,” Mr. Barrett said. “No one is going to forget that video anytime soon.”

United is tying executive pay (not just Mr. Munoz’s) to customer satisfaction, and in its recent earnings report included a section on the “customer experience.” The airline said it would continue its renewed focus on the customer.

“That’s great and I hope it’s true,” Mr. Winston said. The airlines “have spent the last 30 to 40 years building a culture that’s about maximizing profits. Employees and customers were just a cog in that strategic wheel. Maybe it takes an incident like this to make them realize they can be about something more than moving cattle in the cheapest possible way.”

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