Running a network enterprise is exceedingly complicated. The global network of an airline like United makes the business particularly fraught. Industry pressures exacerbate problems and translate to frustration for passengers. What happened two weeks ago in Chicago was an unmitigated reputational disaster. Given the nature of the airline business today, passengers are well aware that operational disruptions can happen. However, this incident was extreme in every way. Today’s media landscape dictates that carriers need to be prepared with much better protocols than those employed at O’Hare.
First things first – flying is more affordable and more popular than it has ever been. Since the federal government deregulated the airline industry in 1978, fares have fallen by nearly 50 percent and passenger traffic has tripled. As much as we the flying public like to complain about the flying experience, the fact that it is uniquely accessible in the United States today can’t be denied.
Among the factors that keep ticket prices down is the practice of “capacity discipline,” an industry buzzword which roughly translates to “fuller flights.” In order to keep costs down, airlines do their best not to have more seats on a route or frequency than the market demands. In the United case ORD > SDF, that was 70 seats, as evidenced by the full flight. And while full flights can sometimes lead to boarding denials, most passengers would rather have a lower fare and take a chance on getting bumped than subsidize a bunch of empty seats. In rare cases, passengers need to be “re-accommodated.”
Other, external factors further complicate matters. While much has been made about United’s overbooking procedures, the flight in question was not technically oversold. Rather, a crew of four needed to be repositioned at the last second in order to work another flight out of Louisville. Any number of factors could have necessitated the deadheading crew including weather, a mechanical failure, poor scheduling or a growing and soon-to-be cataclysmic shortage of pilots.
The airlines remain a mystique industry. There is a certain amount of magic involved in hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour and ending up on the other side of the continent, the ocean, or the world in a matter of hours. The airlines need to do a better job of explaining that it isn’t magic, but rather the product of tens of thousands of employees constantly solving a giant and color-changing Rubik’s cube which get passengers to their destinations quickly, safely, and affordably.
So, too, do the airlines need to improve their communications and protocols. In the aftermath of this disgraceful episode, consumer advocates are rushing to push for improved federal regulations and lawmakers in Congress are introducing legislation. But certain problems are never going to go away. That means all carriers, not just United, need to take a hard look not only at what they’re doing but how they’re explaining their decisions. Social media has transformed the media. United’s bad month (including the “leggings incident” before the infamous “re-accommodation”) was made terrible by the wall-to-wall coverage provided by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other channels. Social Media means there’s a reporter in every seat today, and their content can go viral in minutes. Book-aways, a plunging share price, and irreparable brand damage can result. The once iconic “Fly the Friendly Skies” is now and forever a punch line to a bad joke. All carriers would be wise to examine their crisis plans and employee training manuals to ensure they are up to 2017’s standards.