My Final Thoughts on United – How Should They Bounce Back?

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A few weeks ago United dragged a passenger off an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville after having to accommodate crew members. I’ve talked about United’s fiasco, though I haven’t really talked about what has happened afterward. Ultimately the situation was one that has caused heads to turn both on the airline and entertainment front, as United initially handled the situation almost comically terribly.

an airplane at an airport
United Boeing 777-200 Hong Kong Airport (courtesy SanSpotter)

I’d like to touch upon the event and provide a commentary on what United has done after I last gave an update. It’s pretty evident that United has had to do quite a bit of reflection after this, and other airlines have had to revise their policies as well and ensure that the same fiasco doesn’t happen to them. United hadn’t had a great reputation to start with, so this just screwed them over even further.

United’s initial response was terrible

Let me remind you what United initially said when they dragged Dr. Dao off the United flight, which is probably what has given them so much crap over the situation.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” – Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

Oscar Munoz is the current CEO of United that has reintroduced their products so they aren’t focused on increasing capacity (well, economy class is in this instance, but I can’t blame Munoz since 3-4-3 economy on 777s is becoming the industry standard), and it’s unarguable that their Polaris soft product looks considerably better than what their biggest competitors have, including great bedding, good food, etc. Other people have mentioned that it isn’t revolutionary, but it’s been refreshing to see United finally put some effort into the product. This made me especially shocked to see the same man release such a statement.

However, it’s worth noting that the statement was one written by the communications department at United, as informally released statements (of which this was one) are not usually issued directly from the CEO’s desk. Unarguably, Oscar Munoz underestimated the magnitude of the situation, as the statement was signed in his name. Therefore, Oscar Munoz is at fault for escalating the situation with a response that reflects their company as arrogant; however, I’d like to assume that he just brushed this statement to one side, and it really doesn’t reflect him as a company CEO.


I’d like to give United a chance

What I mentioned above doesn’t shadow the fact that United has long had a corrupt company ethic. After realising the magnitude of the situation, Oscar Munoz has released many genuine-seeming apologies (we never know if they actually are, but I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt):

In each interview that I’ve seen after the incident went viral, Munoz has personally mentioned the magnitude of the situation, recognising that his own company had taken measures to remove a “book, paid, seated passenger” off a flight. Munoz also seems to realise that their company ethic has been flawed thus far, and they have come up with a new set of policies that crew have to comply with:

  • Limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.
  • Not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.
  • Increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.
  • Establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions such as using nearby airports, other airlines or ground transportations to get customers to their final destination.
  • Ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure.
  • Provide employees with additional annual training.
  • Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans.
  • Reduce the amount of overbooking.
  • Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.
  • Eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a “no questions asked” policy on lost luggage.

United has also noted a simplified version of this in the Washington Post:


I applaud United for being resilient in this situation and realising that there are vast company issues that they will have to address and change to become the airline that Oscar Munoz envisioned that the airline would be. I’m not a MileagePlus member, but all of them were issued an email from United that read as follows:

Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.

Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?

It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.

Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at

While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. If our chief good as a company is only getting you to and from your destination, that would show a lack of moral imagination on our part. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, “I fly United.”

Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.

We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.

With Great Gratitude,
Oscar Munoz
United Airlines agrees that Munoz has been genuine for the most part. 😉

a close-up of a screen

United needs to improve their brand image

In all honesty, Munoz raises a goal that expresses what he wants United’s image to be: he wants people to be happy that they’re flying United. That’s something that’s hard to achieve; when people knew I was flying Singapore, they were like “wow, they’re like, king of all airlines”. United also flies to Singapore, but everyone’s response would be more like “don’t get dragged off!”.

Dennis Owen, the social media manager of Cathay Pacific, explained to Jason and I about who Cathay Pacific wants to be as a brand. In order to become the vibrant brand that they aspire to be, Cathay Pacific needed a refreshed company ethic, with their working quarter decor, attitude and treatment all relative to the brand they wanted to be. United needs to improve their brand ethos and vision to make people happy about flying them.

img_5123Cathay City New Meeting Areas

One way to go about it is to reinvent themselves completely, though they’ll definitely need a concrete vision statement. Their current goal is “to make every flight a positive experience for our customers”, which isn’t really saying anything. On one hand of the spectrum you have Singapore Airlines, which attempts to be as polished as possible and have every single detail right. Then you have airlines like Virgin Atlantic that only appeal to a certain audience – I love them because they’re quirky, fun, different, and proud to be themselves. They can’t please everyone, and they’re proud of that.

DSCF9339Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 Hong Kong Airport

United’s vision statement is currently apersonal, which limits them from being to appeal to any audience. While Munoz has been trying to make Polaris one of the most refined products out there, it’s overwhelming for some of the crew – after all, there are many moving parts that makes business class perfect, and it certainly doesn’t look like United has all of them. No airline has all of them – it’s about choosing the parts that you think your target audience will find important. I understand I need to elaborate on this and will do in a separate post tomorrow.

What do I think United needs to work on?

Currently, United needs to salvage its reputation, as it’s sinking lower than Malaysia Airlines’ did after they had two unfortunate air accidents in 2014. They also need to improve their brand image as a whole. Oscar Munoz realises this, and I’m happy that he’s willing to take action – however, saying that you’re not going to drag people off a flight isn’t going to make people suddenly want to fly United Airlines.

Some things United needs to work on are:

  • ensuring they market their product to a great extent (which they’re doing, as Polaris has shed quite a bit of positive light on United)
  • being transparent about situations like this and disclosing the results of everything they do
  • going under a further rebrand to strip themselves of their employee-focused identity (American did a decent job with this with the “new American”)

Ultimately I feel like United needs to let this situation sink into the general public for a while so they can start fresh, though United certainly needs to do quite a bit to “save” their brand. I’d say that before the incident happened, they were actually doing quite well.

IMG_6199American Boeing 777-300ER Hong Kong Airport

Let’s look at Emirates. Emirates has had their fair share of issues, including a 777-300 crash landing at Dubai after a flight from Thiruvananthapuram. However, their marketing is excellent. People manage to feel so good about flying Emirates all the time, because they call themselves such a glamorous airline, have minibars in business class, have showers, etc.. However, unless I was in first class, I would probably choose United’s new 777-300ER business class product over any business product across all of Emirates’ fleet. And while United features a 3-4-3 product in economy class, so does Emirates.

Bottom Line

While United screwed up quite a bit especially with the incident and their initial response, I’d like to stop myself from writing United off on this blog, and also think Oscar Munoz deserves a chance. However, if he needs to salvage the damage that was done in this incident, the company will need a major overhaul to rid themselves of their old brand ethic. Tons of memes have been popping up on 9GAG, as well as the rest of the internet, regarding United and the dragging incident. United needs a way to prove them wrong, and if they stick to what they’re doing right now there’s not much about their brand that can be saved.

I’m happy that Munoz has found his voice in United through Polaris, though it needs to extend to United’s company ethic as a whole. We’ve seen some airlines do major rebrands (Cathay Pacific, American, etc.), and United needs to solidify what they want us to see from them if they really want us to be proud to fly United. I’d like to see United come up with a vision statement that clearly defines and tells us who they want to be, which will prove that they have bounced back from this problem and reassure passengers that a situation like Dr. Dao’s will never happen to any other customer – as they have now realised that the customer comes first.

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