How I Got the United Situation Wrong Yesterday

Apr 14, 2017 | Customer Experience, Customer Loyalty, Leadership

I hate liars – and lawsuits. Today I have to decide which I hate more.

It’s probably liars. Especially when the lies are used to abuse people.

After hearing the news conference held by Dr. Dao’s attorney this morning, it sounds like Dr. Dao’s injuries are far greater than previously thought.

According to his attorney, “Dao suffered a significant concussion as a result of disembarking that plane, and he had a serious broken nose, injury to the sinuses, and he is going to be undergoing reconstructive surgery in that regard,” said Demetrio, adding, “Yeah, and he lost two front teeth. He’s shaken.”

Whether Dao becomes a poster child for the movement to make airlines stop herding flyers like cattle remains to be seen. After all, it’s not just the airlines. It’s the whole check-in process – security and all that stuff.

It’s clear the airlines (and security) need to change their modus operandi. And a big settlement might serve as a wakeup call to the airlines, in a way that common sense and human decency just don’t.


Some airlines – and companies in other industries – are more toxic than others.

United seems to take the cake. Incidents of horrible abuse of paying customers are rife. One full-fare-paying United customer was denied his first class seat, and instead was stuck on a 6-hour flight in a middle seat between a husband and wife who were fighting WW3 the entire flight.

Shortly before and after the merger of Delta and Northwest (dubbed North-worst at the time), I tried to avoid flying Delta at all costs.

Then a strange thing happened.

They actually got serious about their customer service. That’s not to say they’re perfect. We do live on earth, after all, not in heaven.

Delta started following up on phone calls to the company with a one-question customer survey… “On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being high, how likely would you be to hire the representative you just spoke with if you had a customer service company?”

Based on my experience, it has improved Delta’s phone customer service immensely. And I’ve never seen an action even remotely as abusive as Sunday’s United incident on a Delta flight.


Leadership lessons we can learn from companies with toxic cultures…

If your company behaves like an aggressive bulldog toward your customers, watch out! Sooner or later it’ll come back to haunt you.

This week provided one notably sad example. Last year there was another.

There are surely plenty of others. Smaller private companies may fly under the radar, since they’re not publicly traded. But they’re there.

Ideas have consequences. And if you think that you can spout lovely ideologies from the corner office, while browbeating your sales force with unrealistic quotas, killing morale, and threatening employees with termination, you’re kidding yourself.


Correction: You’re lying to yourself.

And sooner or later your lies will be shouted from the mountaintops for all to hear. (And posted to every social media outlet on the planet.)

That’s what happened to United this week. And to Wells Fargo last year.

C-level leaders said one thing. Boards and shareholders rewarded it. But if reality inside the company is so far removed from its public reputation, it opens the door to all kinds of shenanigans and lies that permeate and poison the entire company from within. Like a cancer.

In United’s case, the CEO, gate staff, and pilots didn’t even know the laws that governed the situation. Or they were clearly lying about them.

They were in clear violation of their own Contract of Carriage (COC), citing Rule 25 (Denied Boarding Compensation) instead of Rule 21 (Refusal of Transport) in Dr. Dao’s case.

Rule 25 applies only when an airline wants to deny boarding to a passenger before they’re on the plane – not to remove someone who has already boarded the plane.

United’s Rule 21 – Refusal of Transport – is different, and expressly covers specific situations in which a passenger who has already boarded can be ejected from the plane. These justifications include unruly behavior, drunkenness, inability to fit in one seat, medical problems… Nowhere in Rule 21 does it reference overbooking or the need for additional seats. And there’s no evidence Dr. Dao was being unruly.

Nor is a passenger required to obey the orders of the flight crew if they are asked to do something unlawful. This was unlawful.

For United to bring in thugs carrying weapons to smack his face into stationary objects (a known police tactic), and then blame and smear him – all while violating their own internal COC – is indefensible.

Once a person in possession of a valid paid ticket has been seated, he cannot be ordered to give up his contractual right to enjoy it, simply to convenience someone else.

So what went wrong here? Why were the four “United employees” so late to arrive at the gate that this issue couldn’t be resolved before the plane was boarded?

Have United gate agents even been given authority to properly manage these types of situations by boosting the incentive for passengers to give up their seats?

If other airlines offer thousands of dollars to rebook a single ticket, why was United so chintzy as to start with $400 and only boost it to $800?

It seems that on a Sunday night, many people might have business obligations on Monday morning, so the incentive might have to increase to compensate for that.

And why do United employees not even know – or willingly choose to ignore and lie about – their own policies?

It seems there’s a whole bunch of leadership failure here. And lies. All the way from the corner office to the gate and plane.

And hey… if the culture is so toxic that they’re willing to treat one passenger this way, what makes you think they wouldn’t take equally drastic actions with one plane? I’m not suggesting they would, but it makes me afraid to fly with them.


United doesn’t exactly have a corner on leadership failure, unfortunately.

Only a few months ago, Wells Fargo got into trouble for falsely setting up unauthorized loans and other accounts for up to 2 million accounts. Wells Fargo’s CEO claims it was just a few bad apples.

But a report by NPR paints a very different picture.

Former employees told of a corporate sales culture so out of control that people were constantly crying and being paraded in front of colleagues on the way to the “back room” for a scolding, like a 9-year-old on the way to the principal’s office.

One employee explained how, after one of these “coaching” sessions, she threw up in the wastebasket under her desk.

Another said that his managers never told him to do anything deceptive with customers. But they continually hounded him, like a bulldog. And turned a blind eye to those who set up false accounts. Apparently because it made them look better, all the way up the food chain.

In my opinion, both CEOs should resign. They pleased shareholders for a while. But is this any better than Enron, seriously?

And a final note to investors: it may be hard to tell until the bottom drops out, but toxic leadership should be a sign to invest your money elsewhere. Because sooner or later, you’ll have to pay the piper, and the price could be steep indeed.

It makes the case for entrepreneurship and investing your money into your own business stronger than ever. At least then you know what kind of leadership is in place. And I sincerely hope your company is more honest with customers and clients, and more empowering to staff, than either United or Wells Fargo.


To your unlimited business growth,

Carol Parks

Carol Parks helps entrepreneurs and companies grow and scale via digital copywriting and smart marketing strategy… both B2B and B2C. Need copy now? Check-out her Services & Copywriting Packages!