3 Customer Service Lessons We Can Learn from United Airlines F***up

6 min read
Apr 14, 2017
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United Airlines customer service lessons

United Airlines is a company that proves that an aviation disaster can happen before the plane goes up.

A couple of weeks ago, their staff refused to onboard two little girls who were wearing leggings, because their clothing was “not appropriate.” Another, about an 11-old-girl, was forced by the staff to wear a dress on top of her clothing to be allowed to pass the gate.

As you might suspect, the whole situation caused a social media outrage over United Airlines, however, as time has passed, everyone stopped talking about it.

Apparently, the company was too afraid of going off the map, because they’ve just arranged another incident. By kicking a passenger from their plane, United Airlines beat Comcast, a company who wears a laurel wreath in delivering poor customer service for years.

Hopefully, none of you will ever have to deal with such an incident, but we still can learn from it. Here are three customer service lessons we all can learn from United Airlines disaster.

Lesson #1: Don’t put your policies first. Seriously, don’t.

To be honest, I feel a little bit weird by saying that customer should go first. I thought that the 21st century brought us a little bit more enlightenment, at least in the customer service area. “Putting customers first” sounds like a boring and obvious cliché, but apparently there are companies that still need this reminder.

Here’s how putting policy first worked for United Airlines during leggings-gate.

The reason why two preteen girls were stopped by United staff was that according to the company’s policy, staff had the right to do that. Both girls and their parents were traveling with “pass riders,” discounted tickets given to employees or their friends, with the responsibility of a dress code.

And you know what?

That’s perfectly understandable. Pass riders are a nice gesture and a company may expect that employees and their friends will be their company’s business card.

However, how someone can expect dress code from children? And why two little girls wearing leggings would be offensive for any company? Is this piece of clothing worth stressing up the whole family and the passengers around?

And the most ridiculous thing is that in the official statement the company claimed that “To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.” So, in other words, once you pay enough money, leggings are accepted.

Come on.

United Airlines tweets

I’m quite sure that it was much more offensive for passengers to watch how children are treated by United staff than the fact they wear a particular kind of trousers!

Lesson #2: Focus on creating an amazing customer experience

"Amazing customer experience” sounds like a joke in this context. I should rather say “unforgettable experience” as the passengers of infamous flight 3411 won’t be able to forget about it, that’s for sure.

We’re all familiar with the story of a passenger who was beaten up and dragged out of a plane by airport police, so let’s focus on what really happened.

Although at first, the company reported that the flight was overbooked, in fact, it was not.

Four airline employees were needed in Louisville, so they needed four seats. Since they came to the gate after the boarding, four passengers had to be removed.

We all know what happened next. The man refused to leave, the staff called for the airport officer’s help, and they dragged him out of the plane by force.

Tweet United Airlines app update
Fake, but funny.

But let’s forget about the last part of this pathetic incident and focus on the root cause of this problem.

The staff didn’t keep a place for their colleagues - a mistake on the company’s side, but it happens. Then, the staff chose four passengers to leave the flight voluntarily, three of them agreed, one of them didn’t. And now:

This is an example of everything but delivering great customer experience. There were over 70 passengers there and I’m sure all of them were offended, furious and worried about their families and themselves.

Seriously, if I was there, I’d be a bundle of nerves there. If I see an innocent person being treated like that, nothing makes me think I would be treated differently.

United Airlines incident tweet

Lesson #3: Don’t underestimate the word of mouth

In the age of social media, your customers and potential customers are everywhere. Making such a scene in front of dozens of terrified customers who have an Internet connection is a crucial mistake any company could make.

United’s staff was apparently not aware of the harm such incident could make to the brand, otherwise, they would take an action to de-escalate it (unless they were afraid of the officers too).

Another problem was the company's official statements. At first, the company reported that the flights were overbooked and they had the right to re-accommodate a passenger. A couple days later, they admitted that they “forgot” to board additional staff members.

At the same time Oscar Munoz, United CEO, drove the final nail in the coffin publishing the official statement on their Twitter page. He said: “I apologise for having to re-accomodate these passengers.”


His bleeding, unconscious customer was just kicked off his company’s plane and he’s “sorry for the re-accommodation?” He apologized for the “horrific event” on the next day (he probably saw the video footage and the results of social media outburst), but nothing could stop the snowball effect.

He clearly underestimated the word of mouth and that’s where the whole PR disaster came from.

United Airlines funny tweet


Not enough seating, prepare for a beating.

United Airlines have just made probably the most gigantic PR fail in the history of the airline industry and will take a prominent place in a gallery of customer service disasters.

The day after this incident United Airlines stock dropped $1.4 billion. At the time, angry web users had called for boycotts while others were cutting up their United-branded credit cards. Unfortunately for the brand, the incident attracted huge attention in China, which is a key market for United.

We all know that sooner or later, United’s stock will recover. It recovered after leggings-gate, it will recover after Dr. Dao dragging. The problem is, the company is now a laughing stock and people won’t forget about it quickly.

It will take ages to clear the tarnished name of the company.

On Tuesday, the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users suggesting slogans such as “we have red eye and black flights available.”

People created tons of mean memes and videos that ridicule the brand, and believe me, it’s too good to be forgotten.

The best part of it is that ironically, Oscar Munoz was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by the magazine PRWeek!

What can I cay, Comcast is as happy as a clam at high tide, so are United’s competitors. And we can learn a lesson that if your company is not focused on your customer’s needs, the reality check might be brutal.

PS. You probably won't believe it, but there's another United incident. This time, a passenger was stung by a scorpion on one of the United's flights!

You might also like A Guide to Really Bad Customer Service (Written by Devil's Advocate).