April 11, 2017

Fly the (un)Friendly Skies? Four Policies to Avoid a United Airlines Debacle

United Airlines are the third biggest airline in the world by revenue and carry some 95m passengers to 60 countries – but right now most of the world is talking about the way they treated just one customer in their home airport of Chicago.

The footage that emerged on 9 April of David Dao, a Vietnamese-American doctor forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight, quickly went viral:

Two days after the incident United (tagline: “Fly the friendly skies“) had seen $1bn wiped from their share price and faced a PR nightmare, with news outlets around the world writing stories with titles like “United Airlines faces PR disaster after man dragged from plane” and “United’s PR disaster: ‘Hindenburg of customer service episodes’“:

Clearly no business wants to receive this kind of coverage (and there are a number of crisis management lessons United will surely learn from this episode), but how can businesses avoid these kind of incidents in the first place?

What happened on the United Airlines flight

The details of the incident are slowly starting to emerge.

United had overbooked the flight – a conventional policy in the aviation industry as it turns out – and asked for four volunteers to leave the flight in exchange for something like $800-1,000 in flight vouchers so they could seat staff members.

When too few passengers took up the offer they asked Chicago law enforcement authorities to select passengers – it’s not clear how they were selected, although it’s been suggested Mr Dao was selected due to his ethnicity – and remove them, with Dr. Dao among the group.

When he refused, reportedly yelling “I’m a doctor. I have patients I have to see in the morning. I have to get back tonight. I can’t be delayed,” the law enforcement took matters into their own hands.

Dr Dao was left bleeding from his mouth and spent the night in a Chicago hospital.

Four policies to avoid United Airlines-esque behaviour

It’s hard to believe any business would have processes that authorise treating anyone, let alone paying customers, this way and it may emerge that the employee in question was not following policy and guidelines.

But in any case, here’s a list of policy areas you should consider to ensure this kind of behaviour doesn’t happen in your business:

  1. A fully comprehensive equality and diversity policy to ensure your staff act equitably
  2. A fully compliant harassment procedure so your staff have guidance and recourse in confrontational situations
  3. A human rights policy so all staff are clear on the values and guiding principles behind trating colleagues, customers and others with dignity and respect
  4. A social media policy that includes sections pertaining to the use of social media by employees and others, including how to behave when recorded by onlookers on and off duty

And make sure you train your staff in these policies so they are understood and enforceable across your business.

Our 24/7 adviceline is available to all Moorepay customers to provide support and advice on policy development and usage, including all those mentioned above. Speak to a member of the team on 0845 073 0240.

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About the author

Stephen Johnson

Stephen has over 25 years experience in private sector HR and management roles, working as a Manager for over 10 years and eventually moving into the financial services industry. In his current role as an HR Policy Review Consultant he develops, reviews and maintains our clients’ employment documentation. With extensive knowledge of management initiatives and HR disciplines Stephen is commercially focused and supports clients in delivering their business objectives whilst minimising the risk of litigation.