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What to Do When the News is Really Bad?

Angry Airline SmallerClean House and Man Up   

On September 15, 2015 eight days after Oscar Munoz was named President and CEO of United Airlines he sent an email to all United Mileage Plus members. In this letter to customers Munoz committed to three things he considers critical to any business:


Focus on Customers



All three things have been sorely lacking at United since the Continental merger in 2010. The arrival of Munoz and this letter to customers signals recognition of past transgressions, a public commitment to change and the desire to reestablish United’s brand equity as a premier airline.

What Brought United to this Point?

The most recent incident occurred on September 8th when Jeff Smisek, President and CEO of United stepped down as a result of a federal investigation surrounding improper business practices used to garner favor from a former top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

United has struggled with lackluster financial performance since the merger in 2010 when Smisek, then Continental chief, took the reins at United. The merger has been plagued with coordination glitches; both internal and external. During that time United conspicuously ignored the three things that Munoz pointed out in his letter:

Lack of Focus on Customers:   In 2014 United ranked second from the bottom in the JD Powers customer satisfaction ratings of airlines. It was also the top airline for bumping passengers involuntarily.

Lack of Teamwork: Employee friction is rampant at United. There is no integrated culture and United and Continental employees are at odds. Flight crews are typically either ex-Continental employees or United employees… but never mixed. Recently a flight crew introduced themselves to passengers as a Continental crew, a distinction they believe to be superior.

Lack of Innovation: We all remember the computer snafus that have plagued the airline in the past 12 months. United shut down numerous flights and paralyzed travel for hundreds of thousands of people. The focus at United has been on the bottom line and cutting costs. Employees refer to this approach as “It’s all Jeff’d Up” (Smisek)

A New Era at United?

It’s too soon to tell whether Munoz will be successful with this new strategy. But his public statement of United’s commitment is an unusual and critical first step, because it got us to sit up and take notice. It will require leadership and focus.

The road to rebuilding your brand’s trust among employees and customers is never easy. But it is worth fighting for.