United Airlines: An Open Letter to CEO Oscar Munoz

8 responses.

An Open Letter to United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz

Dear Mr. Munoz.

You and United Airlines have had a hard couple of weeks.

For the benefit of the uninformed, let’s recap just a little, shall we?

First one of your United Airlines’ employees chose to have a passenger taken off a flight in order to seat some United Airlines’ employees. By the time Chicago security dragged the hapless passenger – Dr. Dao – off the plane a second time, he was both screaming bloody murder and bleeding from his mouth. Days later, Dr. Dao is due for both reconstructive surgery and his day in court to punish you and United.

Of course, Dr. Dao’s unfortunate trip down the aisle was documented on your other passengers’ cell phone videos and smeared all over the Internet. You can’t swing a mouse through the Internet without coming across a replay of this awful event.

Despite all this, it took you at least four attempts at a public statement before you both apologized sincerely and took responsibility for what happened.

In the meantime, a scorpion attacked another United passenger, a newlywed couple was put off their flight, and the blogosphere erupted in humorous memes and incensed outrage, all targeting you and United. And if that weren’t enough, pundit after pundit reminded the public of the “United Breaks Guitars” event (the video has been viewed a staggering 17,258,000 times) and the aptly-named “legging incident.”

There’s been so much press on United Airline’ troubles that I’ve already been on national TV five times to talk about the events. Here’s CNN, FOX, and MSNBC just to list a few.

The bottom line? It’s estimated that your United Airlines has already lost between $800 million and one billion dollars in brand value.

And even though you issued a positive financial statement on Monday, there’s no reason to believe the losses won’t continue.

That’s not to say you haven’t done a lot of good for the company. You are given credit for leading United airlines through the tumultuous merger with Continental Airlines and fixing the union crises. Better, under your leadership United Airlines logged a record $1.1 billion in profit last year, and you commandeered a brilliant $3 billion stock buyback program.

But let’s face it, you’ve really stuck your foot in it this time. To get out of this nightmare is going to take a little bit of planning and a whole lot of work.

Here’s what you and United Airlines needs to do:

  1. At the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole and you want to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging. What happened on your planes was bad enough – there’s no need for you to make it worse through tone deaf statements. You’re a smart man, Mr. Munoz. Do I need to say more?
  2. Watch my favorite television commercial of all time. It was aired back in 1990. No, I didn’t write it or produce it. I just think it’s one of the best pieces of marketing communications ever.

Notice something interesting, Mr. Munoz? That’s right. The spot is for United Airlines. The company you run.

This commercial is proof positive that almost 30 years ago your company knew exactly what it stood for and why. And it shows that United Airlines understood why your customers do business with you. In my world, this commercial proves that once upon a time United Airlines had a powerful All About Them brand.

What this great commercial shows us is it’s not that United Airlines has been hit with bad luck. It’s not that times have changed. It’s not that conditions have conspired against you.

It’s simply that you and United Airlines have lost your way.

I’m not suggesting that your flight back won’t be a difficult one. But just like your suggestion of “having to re-accommodate… customers,” maybe it’s time to re-accommodate your brand messaging and the operational training procedures that go along with that re-accommodation.

And unlike the blowhards who are screaming for your head, I think you’re the perfect person to lead your company into the promised land. After all, you’ve already proven your financial acumen and your uncanny ability to negotiate with unions and employees. And you’ve felt both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Victory feels a whole lot better, doesn’t it?

Now it’s time to demonstrate that your leadership coups were not simply beginner’s luck.

If it’s not clear yet, I would love to help you build a compelling brand strategy every bit as powerful as the one your airline debuted in 1990. I believe United Airlines is perfectly positioned to prove the power of All About Them. What’s more, I believe you’re just the guy to do it.

I simply await your call to get started.

  8 Responses

  1. kelly scott
    on April 18, 2017

    Bruce,
    Spot on. Hopefully they will listen.

  2. Jeanna
    on April 18, 2017

    Nice. Watching that commercial again, after all these years, made me feel warm toward the United brand and what it once meant. Maybe they should rerun it for awhile, just in case Oscar Munoz doesn’t have the smarts and guts to hire you to do the job.

  3. Doreen LoCicero
    on April 18, 2017

    When employees bully instead of give customer service, catastrophic events may occur — all destroying the company brand — in an instant. We have all had to deal with rudeness and lack of service – it almost makes you want to be served virtually, instead of dealing with humans and their assaults! But in the near future, will robots man-handle customers instead of security thugs? Think of all the a.i. ways one could be dealt with!

  4. on April 18, 2017

    Bruce…as you know, the mess happened on a UA partner airline…no UA crew nor equipment were involved. But since it flies as a UA partner, UA is partially/largely responsible for letting the goons carry on in such a , terrible, uncalled for way. Just think, tho, that 3 other people were as pissed off as the doctor yet got off without being dragged down the aisle. Not making excuses for the terrible treatment the Doctor received…But you know if it was you or I, we would have bitched, gotten off the plane, threatened to bad mouth UAL, and figured that UAL f- up and would put us on another plane. BTW, the about to be married couple, tried to sneak into economy plus. BS about the sleeping person in their assigned row. I fly UA and know how bummed I would be if I paid extra for a roomier seat (well a few inched more leg room) and some else took the seat next to me without having to pay the same extortion rate I had to pay.

  5. on April 18, 2017

    I agree with all your points Alan. And I’m sympathetic to UA and the situation that they find themselves in. But in the court of public opinion none of that matters because when you’re explaining you’re losing. Munoz and the team can point out why the bad press is unjustified all they want. And legal pundits can also make it clear that when uniformed crew asks you to get off the airplane you have a legal requirement to do so. And they’ll all be correct. But all that correctness will not solve UA’s brand crises. In today’s brave new world of democratized social media and ubiquitous cellphone cameras, one of the best bits of marriage advice I’ve ever heard works for equally well maintaining brand value: You can be right or you can be happy.

  6. Seth B
    on April 19, 2017

    You know there is a systemic problem with United because when this happened, it resonated with so many. Nowadays, this might be true for airlines in general, but is especially true for United which has not been “all about them” for some time. I’ve never had an airline do anything terrible to me, but the worst I’ve ever been treated was one of the few times I flew United. That seems to be the case with many. On an airline with a better reputation for service, this may have been viewed more charitably as an isolated incident.

  7. steve
    on April 19, 2017

    Customer Service is supposed to be easy. I always say, It ain’t brain surgery. Just follow one of the 10 commandments and ‘do unto others’. As for offering your services, I’d go soft sell.

  8. on April 19, 2017

    Pilng on is almost always a bad idea. The better it feels, the worse it gets. Since I have done more than my share, I am a self-proclaimed expert… the worst kind.

    If your well-intentioned desire is to inpire change at United Airlines, I admire your optimism.

    Mr. Munoz is not a leader. He brings to mind something my father, may he rest in peace, would have said about him:

    When it rains, most people just get wet. Very few actrully feel the drops. Mr. Munoz still doesn’t know it’s raining.

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