“New York Times” Bestselling Author Tony Tjan Comments on United Airlines Incident

“New York Times” Bestselling Author Tony Tjan Comments on United Airlines Incident

BOSTON, April 13, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — “On Sunday night, video footage of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off an overbooked United flight made waves of social media, sparking outrage and calls for a boycott. The airline’s first public announcement following the scandal was to justify its decision to remove the passenger, but by Monday the CEO of United Oscar Munoz had issued a half-apology: ‘This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United… I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.’ On Tuesday, Munoz expanded on his apology (‘I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.’) but many felt it was too little too late.

The circumstance echoes and is in stark contrast to another apology issued by a CEO for a major U.S. airline almost exactly 10 years ago. On Valentine’s Day in 2007, an ice storm in the Northeast caused a series of cancellations and massive delays for JetBlue Airways. Public outcry was sharp; people were stranded for up to a week, luggage was lost, and rebooking hundreds of flights posed a logistical nightmare for JetBlue’s stressed staff. David Neeleman, the founder and CEO of JetBlue, called it the worst operational week on record for the seven-year-old airline. Immediately after the storm, Neeleman delivered a sincere and humanizing apology in which he took full accountability for the hardships JetBlue travelers were experiencing.

Neeleman’s apology signaled authentic respect for passengers. He did not blame extenuating circumstances and uncontrollable weather conditions; rather, he issued a textbook mea culpa that acknowledged the problem, empathized with those affected, explained what went wrong, and laid out what they would do differently in the future, including issuing a new JetBlue Customer Bill of Rights. He chose to do the right thing— to respect how his passengers felt and apologize. His apology connected with passengers on an emotional level. In a moment of truth, when the airline’s reputation was on the line, Neeleman managed to win even deeper trust from JetBlue’s passengers.

We need leadership and cultures of goodness that emphasize this human factor. When we rely on standard operating procedures, as United Airlines did, we prioritize scale over values. This cannot be a winning strategy—you can scale many aspects of a company, but it’s much harder to scale a culture if the values aren’t lived in the times that matter most. Values are expressed in moments just like this, when the actions of a company in response to a challenging situation show the true colors and strength of that organization’s underlying values and culture. 

Of course, we cannot always get it right. The case may be more nuanced and difficult than we can understand from the outside, but if that is the case, how United responds and acts in follow-up communications is equally important. I would argue that this was not United’s finest moment. Neeleman’s apology to flyers is widely regarded as one of the best corporate apologies. Others should learn from his example and bring human goodness back into organizations—especially after mistakes are made.”

Tjan is the author of Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters from Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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SOURCE Tony Tjan