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United Airlines Needs a Lesson in Apologizing

It’s all over the news… a United Airlines flight attendant insisted that a passenger put her dog carrier containing her 10-month-old French bulldog, Kokito, in the overhead compartment. Fellow passengers state the family told her there was a dog inside the carrier, but the attendant insisted the carrier be placed in the overhead compartment. The passenger begrudgingly complied and the dog did not survive the three-hour trip. The passenger and her 11-year-old daughter were devastated, as were many of the fellow observing passengers.

To make the situation even worse, and the purpose of this post is that United Airlines issued an apology that could have been delivered by a robot…

“This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Now, a few folks are faulting the passenger for complying. The plane had already pulled away from the gate and was en route to the runway for takeoff. The passenger had her 11-year-old daughter and an infant traveling with her. While I do agree that since she had already paid the $125 ticket for the dog and had him in an approved dog carrier which was designed to comply with the airline’s requirement of fitting underneath the seat in front of them and remaining there for the duration of the flight… I really can understand why the passenger complied.

Traveling with children is a challenge. Traveling with children AND a dog is even more of a challenge. She most likely ran through a variety of scenarios… They could be asked to deboard the plane before takeoff, thus causing a scene, missing a connecting flight, having to hassle with the kids and the dog, etc. All of these play secondary to what I suspect was the deciding factor for her… the flight attendant was the authority in the situation. She worked for the airline. She was trained. She knew the rules. She would never insist something be done contrary to airline rules and policies. She would not insist that the animal would be safe in a situation unless that would certainly be the case. So while I personally would likely have not agreed to comply, I can understand and see what lead to her decision. I don’t necessarily agree, but I can empathize with the situation.

And that right there is the key to how this tragic outcome should have been handled. EMPATHY. Empathy is crucial to customer experience and United Airlines demonstrated it’s clear lack of empathy in their corporate response. Assuming responsibility… express deepest regret… committed to supporting… thoroughly investigating… those words and phrases all sound close, but nowhere near good enough. It feels like they are doing their best to sound apologetic, but they are keeping themselves at arms distance from truly owning up to this and doing the right thing. I think it lacks compassion and sounds like they are just annoyed that they have to deal with the bad press surrounding the incident.

My thoughts – If I were to advise United Airlines, I would quickly have them put themselves in the passenger’s place. They have a pet they loved so much they brought it with them on their travels rather than board it in a kennel. Most pet owners love their pets almost as much as they love their children and truly regard them as a member of the family. Not that the mother wasn’t upset enough, but I imagine it would be even more difficult for the 11-year-old daughter to handle the death of a pet, as this would likely be a “life moment” of teaching. United would also need to understand that it was one of their own employees who instructed them to perform the act leading to the death of the pet. Here is how I would issue the apology…

“We cannot express how very sorry we are that this family’s pet died on one of our planes while following instructions given by one of our staff. Losing a pet is hard enough, but to lose it at the direction of a representative you believe is trained and looking out for the safety of all passengers and acting with authority – and having them be wrong – in the situation is unimaginable. 

We know nothing can be done to bring this pet back or make up for this tragedy in any way. We do want to do anything possible to help this family heal. When and if the family decides it is time for a new dog, we would like to facilitate that and cover all expenses for the cost and care of the new dog for the first three years. We would also like to make a donation in Kokito’s name to the SPCA in the amount of $5,000.

As for our United Airline staff, we will be immediately retraining all personnel involved with passengers and pets during any of our flights on the appropriate and proper guidelines and methods to ensure the safety of all passengers and pets. What happened on this flight was not in accordance with our guidelines and the dog should never have been put in the overhead compartment. We will do everything possible to ensure that this never happens again. 

Our hearts go out to this family and we hope they can believe and accept our sincerest apologies.”

So, while I am no public relations specialist, this is the type of response I would like to hear had this happened to me and my pet. It comes right out and says “We are so very sorry.” Nowhere in the United response do they use the word “sorry.”  We are human. “I’m sorry” conveys at a heart level the compassion and empathy necessary to connect at a human level when delivered genuinely. My suggested response also quickly acknowledges the passenger followed the direction of the authority in the situation. It also acknowledges the directions given were wrong and states the immediate action of training everyone to prevent this situation from happening again.

Offering to cover the cost of a new dog and it’s care for three years and a donation is a gesture of sincere intent to do right and goodwill. They can’t bring the dog back, but they can show that they are humans behind the brand. The backlash that United has dealt with in the last 24 hours over this I think would be lessened quite a bit had United done something similar to show compassion and understanding for the important role pets play in so many families’ lives. United’s response says they are committed to supporting the family, yet didn’t take the time or effort to figure that out or come up with an idea.

With all of the bad press that United has received lately, I really am surprised to see them handling this situation so poorly. The customer experience is based on human emotions. It’s based on how people feel when they work with a company. It’s based on connection and being proactive. In the cases where there needs to be a reaction, the customer experience is successful when the customer feels that the company understands their perspective and has done everything they could to make it as right as possible. It’s about feeling cared about and valued.

Again, while the passenger could have refused, and believe me I’m sure she is replaying that missed moment over and over in her mind, I consider United at fault since their representative gave the directive causing the animal’s death that was not in accordance with their policy.

I truly hope United will take a step back, look at the backlash, really listen to the undercurrent of stated lack of empathy, care and concern and remember that behind the company and the brand, they are people working to serve other people.

 

 

 

 

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