United Has a Culture Problem

Until United CEO Oscar Munoz fixes vital aspects of United's corporate culture, expect to see more negative viral videos and tweet storms about the airline.

Thursday, April 13, 2017
Write To The Editor Reprints It didn't take long for that "leggings controversy" to be completely overshadowed.

By now you've seen the video of a paying passenger forcibly dragged off a United Airlines plane in Chicago because it overbooked, and no one bit on the offer to take a later flight. You've likely read the first non-apology apology by CEO Oscar Munoz, and then the subsequent "real" apology once almost $900 million was erased from United's market cap and the public outcry rose to deafening levels. And, like millions of others, you've come up with a dozen different things United employees could have done to prevent this PR nightmare, or different messages Mr. Munoz could have delivered in the wake of this incident.

And you suspect, just as I do, that the real culprit here has nothing to do with public relations. This is clearly a deep-rooted, historical issue with United's corporate culture.

But first, some context is needed. I just passed two million miles on United. I'm considered one of their best customers. In the last 25 years that I've been flying United, I have witnessed many examples of great customer service. But I've also witnessed examples of poor customer service, although certainly none quite as horrifying as this latest incident. And, while I was appalled, it was no surprise to me as to why this happened.

United employees were likely just following, and enforcing, the rules. And this is exactly what is wrong with United's culture, along with the culture of most other U.S.-based airlines.

Most United employees do not follow what is stated in the United Customer Commitment: Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers. One of the funniest things I witness on a regular basis is "United Premier Platinum" and "Premier 1K" members standing in line and complaining about how much they hate the airline. How many organizations routinely have their best customers openly complain about how much they detest the company? At United -- and to be fair other airlines -- it happens frequently.

That's because United's stated goal is often never realized. In contrast, let me give you an example of an airline that I believe realizes this more frequently.

Singapore Air is one of the premier airlines based in Asia, and has been cited for its customer service many times. I love flying on Singapore. A couple of years ago on a long flight back to the U.S., I got up to use the restroom. As I neared it, I was startled when the flight attendant (a male) loudly shouted "Sir! Please stop right there!" Years of flying United and other U.S. airlines conditioned me to immediately assume I'd done something wrong. Maybe the seatbelt sign was on and I didn't see it, or some other common airplane infraction.

Instead, what he did next is a story I've told a hundred times. He entered the restroom, got a paper towel, and proceeded to wipe down the sink and the counter. He then turned to me and said proudly "There. Now it's ready for you, sir."

Imagine someone on a U.S.-based carrier doing that for you next time you fly. You can't, because it would never happen. And that's because the flight attendants don't view customer experience as their number-one priority. The mission isn't to deliver exceptional customer service -- the mission is to enforce the rules.

You see it on every flight. They curtly inform you of numerous Federal Aviation Administration regulations, constantly remind you of how many pieces of luggage you can bring on board, and semi-threaten those with roll-aboards that they'll likely need to gate check it, and painstakingly explain common-sense things, such as how to use a seatbelt.

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Outside of the U.S., flight crews often take a different approach. I remember one flight in particular. As we were landing, the flight attendant apologized to me and reached over to gently wake up the window passenger. She said "I'm so sorry to bother you, but we are about to land, and I'll need to raise your window shade. Here, let me do that for you." On a U.S.-based airline, that same request would likely have been a barked command, as if you had just committed a felony.

At i4cp, our human capital research clearly shows that the best companies are fanatical about putting the customer first. They empower their employees to do the right thing (clearly not something that exists today at United), they measure their customer experience regularly and they even organize the company around the customer. The latest research from our People Profit Chain report shows that high-performance companies (as measured by revenue, profitability, market share and customer satisfaction) are three times more likely to have flexible procedures and policies to meet customer's needs.

From my vantage point, United has anything but flexible policies, and is not thinking about customer needs. If United's leaders were honest with themselves, they would likely admit they view themselves as a logistics company, not a customer experience company. And the employees are primarily there to make sure the logistics are precise, on-time and efficient. They are not there to make sure your vacation experience was magical, or the business trip was productive, or the trip back from the funeral was as comforting as possible. In fact, they don't really care why you are on the plane . . . as long as you comply with the rules.

I'm generalizing to make a point, but you know as well as I do that it's more accurate than not. And until Mr. Munoz fixes that aspect of United's corporate culture, expect more viral videos and tweet storms documenting the opposite of making every flight a positive experience.

Kevin Oakes is CEO at i4cp in Seattle. Send questions or comments to


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