The United Airlines 2017 Incident : What We Can Learn From It

By Shawn Dexter / April 11, 2017

“He was Disruptive & Belligerent.”

In light of the United Airlines Disaster, I think we should discuss something that way too many of us ignore.

During my time as a Entrepreneur, Product Manager & Leader of several teams, I have learned that there is one important skill every leader must internalize. And that is — Empathy.

Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

PR disasters happen all the time. There’s only so much you can do to control your employees every single action. But how you RESPOND to the disaster is completely under your control.

After the disaster, the CEO decided to point the finger at the customer (the passenger). His remarks were accusatory and defensive:

“He was disruptive and belligerent”
“He refused to comply”
“We decided to re-accommodate him”

Furthermore, the former CEO responded claiming “immaturity” on part of the passenger. Regardless of protocol, context etc etc … when the outcome is as horrifying as a customer bleeding profusely and knocked out — you simply MUST summon your empathy.

Had Oscar Munez empathized with the poor man — who was subjugated by being dragged out of his seat and getting his face rammed into the handrest (through no fault of his own, mind you) — I’m sure his response would have been different.

If he wanted to put on a show of leadership while still empathizing with the customer, he would have perhaps said something like this:

“The United Airlines employees followed protocol as advised, but the result was horrifying. We are investigating the matter with seriousness and looking into revising the protocols to ensure that an incident like this never happens again”

I’m no PR expert — but I put that together in 30–45 seconds. This would have at the very least allowed customers to feel somewhat safe in travelling United Airlines again. Instead, CEO Munez decided victim blaming is the way to go. The PR backlash has been severe with social media and influencers calling for the boycott of United Airlines.

Share prices for United Airlines dropped by 3.3% — making them the worst performed in the S&P 500. And I have a feeling like there is more to come. Perhaps a lawsuit? Time will tell how events shall unfold.

If you were the CEO — how would you respond? I really want to know. I think we can learn from each other. Don’t hesitate to use my response above as a template and make it better. Like I said, I’m no PR expert — I’m sure you guys can come up with something better. Send me your CEO Response by commenting on this post.

We need to learn how to be better leaders. Our responsibility specifically includes our “ability to respond” to a situation.

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About the author

Shawn Dexter

Shawn Dexter is a Product Manager, Entrepreneur & Software Developer. He is passionate about innovation management & technology.