Despite self-inflicting one of the deepest corporate wounds suffered by a U.S. company, United Airlines still has enough inherent business and marketplace strength to save itself from greater, longer-lasting damage.
Of course, that’s provided the air carrier doesn’t continue to foul up and can muster the management moxie needed to stop the carnage that began Sunday. That’s when O’Hare International Airport security yanked and then dragged an uncooperative United Express passenger out of his seat on a fully loaded jet to open a spot for airline personnel bound for the same destination.
A 30-second video, shot by a fellow passenger, went globally viral, as did others.
Nearly a week into this controversy, United CEO Oscar Munoz has repeatedly failed to quell an irate flying public, which is blasting the airline on social media, calling for boycotts and even cutting up United’s Mileage Plus credit cards in protest. Lawmakers are angrily targeting United, and lawyers for the beat-up passenger, Dr. David Dao, are teeing up to sue the airline and the city.
Yet despite this relentless battering of Munoz and his airline’s image, there looms another reality: Travelers will still buy tickets, United will continue to fly, and it’s going to make a lot of money.
Why? Because the Chicago-based airline has a virtual lock on an enormous share of an airline passenger market that provides consumers with increasingly scant flying choices. Last year, United served 339 destinations, 54 countries and 143 million passengers.
Still, while the passenger removal debacle is an exceptional episode, it’s not the first time United has been forced to regroup. In recent years, the carrier has emerged from bankruptcy, confronted labor unrest and survived airline industry merger mania.
On that last score, United has become one of the country’s aviation elite.
Think about it: The combo of American, Southwest, Delta and United controls about 70 percent of the domestic market, according to 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation data. Within that mix, United is the fourth biggest, with a 14.5 percent share.
As a result, many travelers, whether they’re super angry at United or not, are going to find it difficult to sidestep the airline.
Yes, there may be competition on more lucrative and popular air routes, but with most commercial flights being solidly booked, the travel options are far and few.
Speaking of size and scope, United operates domestic airport hubs in major cities including Chicago; Denver; Houston; Newark, N.J.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C.
In addition, United’s frequent flyer programs and hand-held booking and information technology, such as a one-stop shopping app, have the power to keep more people in the fold.
Then there is human nature.
Skeptics will point out that most people tend to have short memories, including air passengers.
Last August, for instance, Delta Air Lines suffered a whopping computer meltdown that forced it to ground thousands of flights worldwide. It took weeks to straighten everything out.
In the midst of those troubles, only 27 percent of 20,000 people surveyed said they would fly Delta next time. But, by early September, 39 percent of respondents said they would use Delta, according to YouGovBrandIndex, a New York-based researcher that daily tracks consumer attitudes toward brands.
While that isn’t the best apples-to-apples example, because the circumstances of the United Express episode are more viscerally disturbing, it shows that widespread anger can subside if the airline resolves the problem.
But finding a resolution keeps eluding United’s CEO Munoz and his team.
Putting aside the failed on-the-ground airline and security management logic that started this whole imbroglio, Munoz has since offered a couple of written "apologies" that sounded more like he was blaming the injured passenger instead of condemning the violence and vowing to get to the bottom of the matter.
On his third round, Munoz appeared on network TV and said all the right things about being appalled by what happened to Dao, but even that mea culpa smacked of a calculated message and didn’t sound very contrite.
There’s another problem.
With his responses, Munoz comes across as an operations guy — someone more interested in making sure the jets fly safely, on time and fully loaded.
Don’t get me wrong, a safe and precise United is a paramount concern to everyone.
Moreover, I truly appreciate that labor relations (especially when dealing with a unionized workforce) is a huge internal concern and showing respect for your people, who are working hard and stressful jobs, is an admirable trait.
But running United shouldn’t be all about logistics and keeping the employees happy.
United seems to have forgotten it is in the customer service business.
Somewhere along the line, that realization and commitment is getting lost at the carrier, which has often been chastised by consumer advocates and regular folks for instances of rude and dismissive treatment of passengers, usually more than most of its competitors.
Putting aside the legalities of the Dao case, Munoz should have found a way to lead the charge for his customers.
What’s more, he should have immediately condemned what happened, which was pretty self-evident from the video, and rallied his team to come up with a plethora of ways to make amends with passengers — the sooner the better.
"Everyone needs to know the brand is about (being) friendly and safe," says Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Is that too heavy a load for United?
Right now, the airline is saying it’s committed to issuing a report April 30 providing details behind the incident and how it intends to make procedural or policy changes, a puzzlingly slow response time to an urgent problem.
Perhaps CEO Munoz believes running out the clock will allow the controversy to peak while the airline’s considerable operational strength helps it prevail in the marketplace.
If so, that’s a cynical and misguided approach to dealing with a calamity that probably won’t destroy United but can surely shake it up for a very long time to come.