United Airlines: Failing Leadership 101

Apr 12, 2017 | Leadership

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was handed the test of a lifetime following the forcible removal of one of his airline’s passengers Sunday night.

And he failed the test. Big time.

In case you missed it, here’s what he said:

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

Talk about an attorney-written tone-deaf bunch of statements! That’s just as disgraceful as the action that elicited it. Actually sounds like it was written by a robot.


Note to Mr. Munoz…

  1. No one cares that you and your team at United are upset. (Probably mostly about the legal ramifications, given this insincere bunch of claptrap.) What you did to your paying customer is disgraceful. What about Dr. Dao being upset? And the other passengers who witnessed it?
  1. Victim blaming, really? After what you did to him? Come on… people are not a herd of cattle, even though we routinely get treated as such in airports. Treat your paying customers with a little dignity. This is not how you win friends and influence people. Which is what leadership is supposed to be. And it’s your customers who keep you in business.
  1. Is this how you re-accommodate your paying customers, i.e., the ones who mean you have a business? That’s nothing more than a flimsy weak-kneed euphemism. You were throwing this guy off your plane, not for anything he did, but because four of your employees were late to the game and you decided to make them priority over your paying customers. I suspect a lot of your former customers will be “re-accommodating” you from now on.
  1. You’re shunting this off to your team? You’re the CEO. The buck stops with you. You’ve been a CEO for other companies before United. You should know this. It’s basic Leadership 101.
  1. As for the leaked email to your employees applauding them for their handling of the situation… it speaks to a toxic corporate culture when your pilots and flight attendants make the decisions they did, and then stand by watching while the police drag off your paying passenger. Who sets the tone for corporate culture? Last time I checked, it was the CEO and senior leadership team. Glad I don’t work there.


So what should Munoz have said instead? (And first thing Monday morning, not late Tuesday afternoon…)

How about this: “Like you, I was appalled when I saw the video from Flight 3411. I am personally extremely sorry, and pledge to get to the bottom of this incident within the next couple days. In fact, I have cancelled all other appointments and will be personally going to O’Hare to do my own due diligence into all the circumstances involved, and to demand a full explanation from law enforcement authorities as well. In the mean time, I want this passenger, as well as everyone on Flight 3411, to know how terribly sorry I am that they had to endure this.”

If United’s lawyers think this will open them up to legal liabilities – gasp! – wait till they see what it’ll do to their business costs.

We’re just heading into prime summer travel season. In addition to its domestic flights, United has many flights to Asia, so an Asian being forcibly removed from the airplane doesn’t exactly instill confidence and inspire sales.

And with daily revenues of about $100 million, all the customers who choose to “re-accommodate” to other airlines will cost United dearly – far more than even a large legal settlement would have.

Time will tell whether Munoz’s later statement – the one that actually sounded like it was written by a living human being and not a robot – was too little too late, or whether it’ll appease the company’s customers.

Leaders should stand on their own two feet, and treat their customers with dignity, no matter what their lawyers say. (And they should expect their team to do the same.) Who’s working for who… after all? If you’re the Chief Executive Officer, act like it!

Admittedly, it’s tough to run an airline. Weather, IT issues, and mechanical problems can cancel flights, and passengers can become impatient and unruly.

But could United’s gate agents have sweetened the deal to convince other passengers to give up their seats? Sure, why not? It would’ve been a lot cheaper than the course they chose, and they could’ve avoided this whole incident. Although they didn’t know that ahead of time, and may not have been given procedural clearance to do so.

At any rate, it’s time for airlines to realize that not all customer service issues are law enforcement issues.

And for the record, although Dr. Dao will probably come out of this with a settlement so large he’ll never work another day in his life – and I wouldn’t be surprised if his lawyers are advising him to stay hospitalized as long as possible to achieve that – I don’t agree with that either.

Yes, he was mistreated and humiliated. That’s inexcusable, and I’m not minimizing that in the least.

But we humans are designed to work, not idly sit on a pile of lawsuit money and do nothing. It might be different if this situation rendered him unable to work. And I don’t have his medical records to know. But I doubt that’ll be the case.

So it seems it’s not just law enforcement and United who are overreacting… but also everyone else who’s ready to sue at the drop of a hat, and attorneys willing to participate in such overreactions.

Bottom line: It takes so little to be above average and to be the one to choose NOT to overreact. Or to prevent a situation from escalating to the point of no return. And even though it may not seem like a leadership statement, believe me, it is!


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!