United Breaks Humans

Lots of you, whether you are a frequent flier or involved somehow in digital marketing and reputation management, are aware that United Breaks Guitars. That is, you’ve viewed the nearly 8-year old music video written, performed and produced by a band that claims they watched as United Airlines’ employees carelessly flung their guitars around the tarmac at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The video, which has more than 16 million views (and also spawned a book by the same name), details how the band got no help, empathy or restitution from anyone at United Airlines as they reported the damage they personally witnessed to their property. Yes, you read that right, according to the band, United never acknowledged, apologized for or paid for the damages caused by United employees and witnessed by the band.

Of course, that was then and this is now, right?

United Breaks Employees

Since the 2009 release of United Breaks Guitars there’ve been lots of changes at United Airlines. Most famously, they merged with (and utterly destroyed, according to many loyal fliers) Continental Airlines. This merger (um, takeover), like most mergers, endured its share of turbulence. Of course, unlike most every other merger in the airline industry, the United-Continental debacle lasted forever. That is, the nightmare continues to this day.

Don’t believe me? Read what then brand new United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz had to say when he took over the airline in 2015 after 5 years of merger-related problems.  The airline went so far as to purchase full-page ads nationwide apologizing for being such assholes.

United was, and still is by all accounts, a shitty place to work. The top-down, rub-the-buffalo-off-the-nickel approach of the management team did not change with the new CEO. Whether treating your employees like thieves or burdening those closest to the customer with all of the accountability and none of the authority, bad leaders beget bad managers who beget bad employees.





As any good leader knows, crap rolls downhill… all the way to the customer. This means you cannot treat your frontline employees and managers like jerks and expect them to genuinely care about your customers. The customer experience is driven from the top, but created on the frontlines.

There was and is a leadership void at United.

United Breaks Customers

In a widely viewed video, United Airlines has proven they lack the necessary leadership to serve the basic needs of their customers. And while United appears to have every right to ask the authorities to drag their paying customers off their flights, this doesn’t mean that it’s okay. This incident reminds me of four axioms I’ve tried to live by:

It’s this last saying that should be printed across the top of every memo and email the United CEO sends out from today onward. If they believed this at United, we never would have watched a man being dragged off an airplane.

United reportedly needed four of their paying customers – who were already seated in their assigned seats, mind you – to give up these seats so that United could use these seats to ferry four United employees to Louisville. United asked for volunteers and even (reportedly) offered up to $800 in United travel for anyone who volunteered.

When no paying customers took them up on their $800 offer, they stopped offering and “randomly” chose to disrupt the lives of four innocent people. (I’m curious how many of those four were seated in First Class?)

You keep your word even when it costs you money!

United Airlines, in effect, gave their word to the four paying customers that (barring any unforeseen weather or equipment issues) they could fly from Chicago to Louisville on this flight, in those seats, in exchange for the price of the ticket.

This begs the question: Why did United stop at $800? The plane probably had upwards of 130-150 people on board; why not offer $1,000? Why not offer cash in addition to the travel vouchers?

Just in terms of dollars and cents, stopping at $800 (even if there never was a video distributed widely on social media) was foolish and shortsighted. What is the potential lifetime customer value of the four people tossed off the plane? Surely much more than $800; in fact, it’s likely closer to $8,000 or even $80,000 (depending on the customer).

This is a crisis of leadership: nothing more and nothing less.

Providing a great customer experience every time is not hard; it’s really not. It’s also not complicated or costly. Chick-fil-A does it with above average fast food and manners.

Unfortunately for United, they’re led by a CEO who I’m certain likens his customers to cargo. (Not surprising, given Munoz previous leadership position was as President and COO of CSX, a railroad company.) Moreover, given his insensitive, rigid, lawyer-like statements since the customer-dragging incident, it appears it’s time for Oscar Munoz to move on from a customer-centric business like commercial airlines and back into railroads or salt mines or sweatshops… anywhere that his “talents” can be better appreciated.

United had every right to have that man dragged from their airplane. To “re-accommodate” someone who was “disruptive and belligerent,” as Munoz so caringly put it.

The customer is not always right, but they are always the customer. And great leaders keep their word, even when it costs them money.

But… people will forget

Of course, even with all of the #BoycottUnited faux outrage of the day vitriol on social media and the disturbing video we’ve all seen, many people will go back to flying whichever airline is cheapest on the given route they need to fly.

This doesn’t mean Munoz should be allowed to stay. To the contrary. The utter lack of leadership that created this situation must be addressed, because for every human dragged off a United plane, there are hundreds of thousands who had a shitty experience with the airline solely because the frontline employee was following the rigid rules pushed from above that were meant to shake another penny to the bottom line.

The funny thing about profit, of course, is that it’s easier to achieve when your customers like you… and, they tend to like you more when you don’t try to break them. United, as we now know, breaks humans.

About TheManager:

Steve Stauning, creator of The Appointment Culture and an expert in The Customer Experience, is the host of Undeniable Advantage Live!, a monthly live video webcast and customer service training provider hosted at UndeniableAdvantage.com. He is also an extremely popular keynote speaker, writer, and industry consultant. Learn more about Steve at SteveStauning.com.