Paul Hargreaves is the chief executive of Cotswold Fayre a specialist fine food wholesaler.

“United in leadership?”

There was a news story last week, which is still ongoing, that will be used in business courses for years to come. PR companies will use it as a salutary lesson for years to come and undergraduates will be taught “how to devalue a company’s stock in three easy lessons”. I am, of course, referring to the United airlines fiasco or lessons on how not to treat a customer!

First of all, why are airlines allowed to continue over-booking their flights – a practice that is more widespread than ever before. I fly at lot and very rarely these days do I not get on a flight that is full. A while ago when flying back from a family holiday I was in a similar situation to the unfortunate passengers on the United flight, and ended up on a plane where there weren’t seats for at least three members of my family. (The airline in question has since gone out of business – surprise!). We had been offered a night in an airport hotel – no thanks – and were eventually allowed (wrongly) to board the plane. By this time, it was two hours after departure time, and most of the passengers had been in their seats for 2 hours going absolutely nowhere. In fact, I could hear the audible groans as the “family from hell” boarded the plane; they all thought it was our fault. It wasn’t! We had been at the gate on time, and were now loitering around in business class with nowhere to sit down.

Being a person that likes to right wrongs, the first thing I did was to go back behind the curtain that separates economy from business class and announced to the whole plane, having asked for silence, that it wasn’t our fault that the plane was late, but due to the airline having over-booked the flight. I stated several facts regarding the airline that portrayed them in a bad light and received a round of applause from the passengers! Meanwhile back in business class, those paying the extra fare to have a spare seat between them, were being encouraged to give up the extra seat (for cash) to allow the rest of my family to be seated. Most agreed, and all my children now had a seat, which just left me standing around in the aisle, whilst the airline crew tried to persuade the last couple to move up and let me sit down. Various bargaining tactics were used and this couple adamantly refused, becoming rather aggressive. At this point I realised that Ian Wright, the ex-Arsenal and England footballer was in Business Class cabin with his family, and he had been one of the nice business class passengers who had given up his empty seat when asked. He was now joining in with me having a very loud conversation about the non-compliant passengers, who wouldn’t budge. It was amusing and good-spirited banter and eventually the pressure became too much and they agreed to let me have the last seat and the plane could take off three hours late. To say there was an uneasy silence on the 3 hour flight home next to these grumpy passengers is an understatement. I think my children would say, “Awks”!

Anyway, back to United – sorry for the digression, but I haven’t had the opportunity to tell that story before. There is quite a lot we don’t know about the story, but there are two aspects of non-leadership I would like to focus on. First of all, the captain’s role; the captain of the plane is completely in charge and completely in charge of everything that happens on her or his “ship”. Where was he/she? I would like to think that he or she would be endowed with enough authority and negotiating skills to resolve the situation without force being used. It was not a very different situation to the one I describe above that was eventually resolved by the captain being involved.

Secondly the ridiculous initial comments from Oscar Munoz, CEO, added fuel to the fire. His first instinct was to blame the customer for the situation. Yes, the customer, who by now had lost two teeth, had a broken nose and concussion, due to being re-accomodated! That statement alone was the primary reason, I believe, for the nearly $1Billion loss in share value. Later in the week several other stories emerged about United’s lack of customer service, from customers being told to clean their own seats - urine-soaked from a previous flight, to a man threatened with handcuffs after he refused to move from his first class seat to make room for Oscar Munoz and his family, who were apparently higher priority! If the leader of a company thinks he is higher priority than his best customers, then the whole company is corrupt and there won’t be a company for much longer unless there is a huge cultural change.

Let that be a salutary tale for us all!

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