United Airlines does it again

Eight years ago United Airlines found itself in the middle of a social media kerfuffle when Canadian folk singer Dave Carroll’s guitar was broken by baggage handlers. Now they’re in the thick of it again.

A few months after his guitar was broken, and the airline refused to compensate him (he says because he didn’t make a claim with 24 hours), Carroll posted a

United Breaks Guitars” musical video to YouTube commemorating the event. Overnight it got a few thousand views, a friend cross-posted it to the Consumerist.com website and it went viral. Three million people viewed it in the first week – now it’s over 16 million views – the case got a lot of attention in the news (CNN, etc.), a Harvard Business School case study was written about it, Carroll spoke at a Columbia Business School event, and he posted two more songs on the subject and a book. It appears to be his biggest hit.

I have to say I have never been real sympathetic to Dave Carroll on this. The video shows his guitar in a soft case. Why would anyone ship a delicate, expensive item on any shipper in a soft case? I used to travel the world producing video case studies for IBM and I would travel with a cameraman and a $50,000 camera. We always packed it in a thickly padded, hard shell case. We wouldn’t have dreamed of shipping it in a soft case.

On the other hand, Carroll spent months trying to get compensation. Given that much persistence United should have tried harder to work out something. I once had a billing issue with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and after about six weeks they relented. Everyone can sympathize with bad customer experience, and people retell stories of dissatisfaction much more than when they have a good experience. It was a good, early example of how an issue could instantly spread globally on social media.

The whole matter doesn’t seem to have hurt the airline much. United’s stock is up 20X since then.

On Sunday, United stepped in it again.

This time they denied boarding to three girls wearing leggings. One was allowed to board after she put on a dress over the leggings, and the other two had to take a later flight.

Really? Leggings?

tweets from United Airlines

Apparently the issue was that the girls were riding on an employee pass and those representatives of the airline have to dress somewhat better. The airline assured people through their Twitter account that regular passengers would not be denied boarding if they were wearing leggings.

But you have to read pretty far down in the New York Times article to find that out. Thousands of people, including actress Patricia Arquette, were tweeting about it, and few were supporting the airline.

This time I’m more immediately sympathetic with the passengers. No one can tell if they’re regular, paying passengers or “pass travelers” who are somehow “representing” the airline. United has a dumb policy, but it’s not the fault of the people running their Twitter account.

But what should the airline have done if they were breaking the rules?

My feeling is that the gate person should have quietly reminded them of the rule and asked them if they could change. If they could not, and their attire was appropriate for regular passengers, they should have been allowed to fly. THEN later the airline could inform the employee that people using their pass had not dressed appropriately and their pass privileges would be suspended for a few months as a result. If it happens a second time, the pass privileges are suspended even longer, and so on.

Here is the take of management guru Tom Peters: