How United Airlines could take a customer service lesson from Delta

If you’ve been flying recently, whether on business, spring break with the kids, or off to a family gathering, you already know how bad it is. Airports are crowded, flights are over-booked, nerves are frazzled, and airline employees are being pushed to the limit of their patience.

I was in LaGuardia last Saturday morning, hoping to catch an on-time departure for Detroit and was amazed at how many people were there, queuing up to go somewhere. The place was a madhouse at 7:00 a.m.: passengers shouting, pushing, demanding that someone pay attention to their particular needs.

Fortunately, I made it to Detroit on time and back to South Bend by mid-day. It wasn’t easy for Delta employees, but they had their “A-Game” on. Passenger service reps helped move people from one service counter to another to shorten lines. Gate agents processed stand-by and upgrade requests. Flight attendants helped passengers with the boarding process quickly and efficiently. It wasn’t entirely seamless (more than 3,000 flights were cancelled last week, thanks to storms that moved through the American South).

They made it work, though. My flight to Detroit, DL-955, was over-booked by 17 passengers, many of whom had been put there by cancelled flights the day before. Gate agents eventually offered many of them as much as $1,350 apiece in an AmEx gift card to give up their seats voluntarily. We boarded quickly and departed on time. Mind you, there are parts of the world where passengers are more patient than they are in New York, but this all worked nicely, thanks to the professionalism of Delta employees.

No such luck for Dr. David Dao, an Elizabethtown, Kentucky physician. He boarded a United Airlines flight at Chicago O’Hare on Sunday, headed to Louisville. Gate agents had boarded all 50 passengers onto a Canadair Regional Jet operated by Republic Airlines and was ready to close the cabin door when four crew members showed up, needing seats. The airline asked for four passengers to leave the airplane to accommodate the crew. Three passengers selected by a DoT computer algorithm reluctantly agreed.

At that point, United employees said they had no choice but to call security and forcibly yank the fourth passenger, Dr. Dao. Online video taken by passengers with their cell phones showed him being dragged from his seat, bloodied and abused. People onboard were horrified. The airline called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent.” The cell phone video demonstrated otherwise.

It didn’t help that United CEO Oscar Munoz offered no real apology for the embarrassment and injuries to Dao, but instead doubled down on a tone-deaf statement about having to “re-accommodate delayed passengers.” As a direct result, United’s stock fell 6.3 percent by Tuesday morning, dropping $1.4 Billion from the company’s market cap.

While United has the right to refuse to board any passenger for any reason, and while Dr. Dao has his own history with law enforcement in Kentucky, this one seems entirely unjustified. More to the point, so does the Department of Transportation and just about the entire Internet. Conspiracy theorists are claiming anti-Asian bias, others are blaming airport police for ham handed tactics.

I would drop the fault at United Airlines’ corporate communication doorstep for not adopting a  more conciliatory view. Munoz said in an e-mail to his employees, “I emphatically stand behind all of you.” Had Dr. Dao been drunk, drugged, disruptive, or dangerous, I could see understand that approach. He was not. He simply did not want to leave a seat he had paid for and was given, saying “I am a doctor. I have patients to see tomorrow.”

The real issue is what United Airlines’ frequent and occasional fliers think as they watch that video. Events like this no longer happen in a vacuum with people make conflicting claims about what happened. Everyone watching, listening, and reading thinks: “That could be me.”

The $1.4 billion stock plunge many not be fully justified, but litigation costs and the loss of top-line revenue will surely hurt. The two most effective responses would be to apologize to everyone involved, pledge to investigate and then make it right. After that, how about a call to Delta’s customer service folks in Atlanta? They may have some advice to share.