What’s Really Wrong With United Airlines?

Over the last 15 months or so United Airlines has received a lot of well deserved negative publicity. Here is a partial list:

  • In January of 2017 they were blamed for killing a passenger’s Golden Retriever dog because it didn’t fit on a flight the passenger was told it would fit on, and then had to stay in containment for 20 hours.
  • In April of 2017 United famously, physically removed a passenger from a flight after the passenger refused to give up his seat for the benefit of a crew member.
  • Also, in April, Simon the rabbit died on a United flight and the post-mortem handling was a circus (which is an insult to circuses).
  • And again, in April (clearly not a good month) A French-speaking passenger was put on a flight to San Francisco while actually holding a ticket to fly to Paris, which was her intention. (Seems a security issue that allows an un-ticketed passenger on a flight)
  • In June, a 2-year old’s seat was given to a stand-by passenger and her mom was afraid to complain based on United’s history, so the child flew in her lap instead.
  • And then this week we find out that United killed a passenger’s dog by forcing it to fly in the overhead bin. (Seriously, who is that stupid?)
  • United had the most animal deaths in 2017, 18 in total.

While each of these events has created a firestorm for United, my question is: What is the root cause of this and other behaviors that seem to defy logic or common sense?

I submit it is the CEO, Oscar Munoz, who has allowed or created a culture of passengers being an inconvenience to the efficient movement of airplanes. Mr. Munoz has been a Board member of United and Continental (before its merger with United) for many years.

He was named Communicator of the Year (why is unclear) in March of 2017 by what is either an inept publication, or one that gives awards based on money. Note that in April (one month later) their PR nightmares, including dragging a passenger off the plane, began and United’s responses were bad, to put it politely.

Why is Mr. Munoz still CEO of United? (To be fair the Board stopped their plan to make him Chairman as well.) Who has been fired for these fiascos? What is wrong with the culture of an airline that can create and allow this pattern of behavior? When Jan Carlzon became CEO of the world’s worst airline (at that time), SAS, in 1981, he turned it around by creating a “moments of truth” culture and enforcing it. Has Mr. Munoz either exacerbated a dysfunctional culture or created one that is not customer-centric or even remotely interested in the customer?

Mr. Munoz has either fostered, encouraged or allowed a culture where “using your good judgement at all times” (the primary policy of Nordstrom’s which drove it to greatness) is clearly not the plan. Or hiring people based on their bad judgement tendencies is the plan.

In reality, I blame the Board of Directors for not having replaced Mr. Munoz already. And maybe the shareholders for not replacing the Board. Fortunately (for United), the airline industry is strong and the number of airlines is limited so United can probably get away with this behavior without going bankrupt … again. But then who would really want to work at such a place?

This won’t stop until Munoz is gone, and he won’t be gone until the Board acts. And the Board, like many, doesn’t seem to be focused on the longer-term issues that face their company. That’s what’s really wrong with United Airlines, in my opinion.


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