United Airlines Must Change Its Culture of Abuse

United Airlines Must Change Its Culture of Abuse
If It Wants to Fly High Again

By Tom Hinton


Consumers should be aghast with United Airlines’ culture of abuse. What United Airlines did when it physically ejected Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky from UAL Flight 3411 was demeaning, shameful and abusive to all consumers.

Dr. Dao was a booked and paying customer. He had properly boarded UAL Flight 3411, operated by Republic Airlines, from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Louisville along with other passengers. But, when United needed four seats to fly crew members to Louisville to service another flight, Dr. Dao was forcibly removed and manhandled by Chicago’s Aviation police. This bungled incident will cost UAL far more in lawsuits, negative publicity and compensation than it was worth. Of course, Dr. Dao has now become another poster child of abused customers around the world by one more unconscious business.

While there are many angles and twists to the gross mishandling of Dr. Dao, two serious questions must be asked that will have a far-reaching impact on United Airlines’ bottom line and the overall way the airlines industry treats customers in the future.

The first question is this: How will United Airlines change its culture of abuse?

Regretfully, this is not UAL’s first public relations disaster with customer abuse. You might recall the ugly incident in July 2008 when Canadian musician Dave Carroll witnessed from his window seat United Airlines baggage handlers tossing around his $1,200 Taylor guitar on the tarmac while loading bags on his United Airlines plane in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. When Mr. Carroll’s flight landed in Nebraska, he discovered his guitar was broken. UAL ignored Dave Carroll’s request to make things right, so he and his band, Sons of Maxwell, became consumer folk heroes on YouTube when they recorded a song that chronicled the ugly incident. Their classic song and video, United Breaks Guitars, went viral with over 17 million viewers to date. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

While the song is funny and well performed by the Sons of Maxwell band, it became an international embarrassment for United Airlines. It reminded anyone who flies of the old adage that “the customer comes last at United Airlines,” especially if your first name is Dave or David!

What defies logic is UAL could have easily resolved the broken guitar problem by reimbursing Dave Carroll $1,200 to replace his beautiful Taylor guitar. But, no. United Airlines did just the opposite. For over a year, UAL passed the buck and even blamed Mr. Carroll for his broken guitar instead of accepting responsibility for their baggage handlers’ mistreatment of the instrument and their gorilla-like tactics when tossing bags and guitar cases around on the tarmac for sport.

When Carroll and his band published the YouTube video and it went viral, UAL quickly changed its own tune. But it was too little, too late. The damage was already done and United Airlines suffered yet another broken nose for its arrogance and customer abuse practices.

Ironically, it was Taylor Guitars of El Cajon, California who reaped all the positive public relations by replacing Dave Carroll’s guitar for free and strumming the broken guitar incident for all it was worth. As a result, Taylor Guitars earned a reputation as a conscious company that understands how to treat its customers. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Guitars is among the most respected guitar makers in the world.

Fast forward seven years later to April 2017, and it appears the “United Breaks Guitars” lessons have been lost once again on United Airlines. Did UAL learn nothing about how to deal with its customers from the Dave Carroll broken guitar incident? Apparently not. With regards to the recent Dr. David Dao fiasco, the apologies by UAL’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, is a positive start, but it’s only a start. More must be done internally to fix United Airlines’ broken culture because it is a culture that is based on unconscious business practices that will eventually crash the company. But how does United Airlines fix its broken culture?

This is the same question that many other companies and agencies are struggling with because they are also contaminated with toxic cultures that lead to illegal or abusive consumer practices such as those we witnessed in UAL’s forceful removal of Dr. Dao. Now, United Airlines and the city of Chicago’s Aviation Department police force have been added to that list of disgraced companies and agencies that also include such well-known brands as BP Oil, Takata (the Japanese manufacturer of faulty airbags), Wells Fargo Bank, Volkswagen, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and numerous law enforcement agencies across the United States that have soiled their reputations because of botched treatment of citizens and the ill-advised use of deadly force.

Each of these companies and agencies is guilty of abusing their customers through a culture of lies, deceit and gross mismanagement that have resulted in unfavorable publicity, lawsuits and the termination of senior leadership. Of course, bad leaders never survive in these situations. Also, such negative policies and abusive practices do not happen arbitrarily. They are the result of inept leadership who are either guilty of promoting an abusive customer culture or solely focused on the bottom line and clearly forget that it is the “top line” – that is, your people, customers and suppliers – who generate every dollar you earn. Instead, these unconscious companies and their profit-hungry leaders place the customer last, not first. This has been UAL’s standard unconscious practice for many years, and it shows!

And, sadly, it’s insulting and demeaning to the many dedicated UAL employees who really do care about their customers. But their hands are tied when the bean counters run the business and implement policies and procedures that are contrary to the interests of customers and employees.

This explains why we’ve witnessed a serious decline in the airline industry when it comes to food quality on flights, high fees for checked baggage that sometimes never reach their assigned destination, and economy seats that have shrunk to the point where they are very uncomfortable and there isn’t enough leg room to move between seats.

In the case of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a federal agency with over 150 hospitals nationwide and nearly 300,000 employees, the contamination of its culture culminated in a serious scandal in 2014 which VA officials were found to be falsifying data to hide how long veterans were waiting to see doctors at VA hospitals. In many cases, veterans died because they could not receive treatment in a timely manner. The 2014 controversy led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. But evidence shows the VA’s mismanagement, retaliatory policies against whistleblowers, and abusive practices toward patients had been in place for decades. Unfortunately, no leaders within the VA had the courage to challenge, confront and change the VA’s toxic culture. Anyone who dared to blow the whistle was either reassigned or terminated. In other words, the VA encouraged a hostile culture where they always shot the messenger rather than fix the problem.

The second question is this: What changes will United Airlines implement to transition from an unconscious business that is currently driven by the bottom line, to a conscious business that is more compassionate, caring and values its employees, customers and suppliers?

It is this second question that will ultimately determine the profitability and survival of United Airlines and every other company or government agency that plans to be in business in ten years. Why? Because Millennials and Generation Z do not tolerate or patronize unconscious companies that endorse abusive practices or mistreat their customers.

There is a Conscious Business Strategy™ every company and government agency can follow that will result in transforming their business from an unconscious to a conscious entity. It consists of five steps. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy to implement because change comes hard, especially when special interests within the organization and the selfish interests of long-term employees are protected over the well-being of its customers. This is what happened at United Airlines with musician David Carroll, and Dr. David Dao, who became its latest victim on UAL Flight 3411.


The first step in a Conscious Business Strategy™ is a culture assessment. This includes a review of your purpose and principles. Every policy, rule and procedure must be examined and re-evaluated before it can re-affirmed. This first step also invites your employees, customers and suppliers to answer key questions about your workplace practices that will help define the kind of culture you desire and quickly identify and fix nagging issues and concerns.


The second step is building your Culture Identity™ system. This system was designed by CRI Global CAPS, a business culture consulting company, and is similar to creating a game plan by which you refine those elements of your culture that can strengthen business operations, company efficiencies and boost profitability. The Culture Identity™ system is driven from the top down, so it’s a process that must be valued and championed by the CEO and his/her C-suite leadership. United Airlines appears to have a CEO who understand the human side of his business, so that’s a positive start. Hopefully, others in his C-suite share his passion.

The third step is the design and implementation of a Culture Blueprint™ based on your company’s financial goals and performance objectives. This becomes your blueprint by which you shape your standards and values, measure and improve performance, strengthen operational efficiencies, boost employee engagement and achieve better results because your Business Operations, Profit Strategies and Customer Relations are aligned and working together for the good of the company and your valued customers.


The fourth step is the Culture Gap Analysis. During this phase, you measure and analyze results, provide feedback to leadership, and refine performance metrics so your people can produce better results. During this phase, you also assess customer response and suggest ways to build closer bonds with your most valued customers.


The final step is training all your employees and key suppliers through the Core Power Wheel™. This step consists of identifying each employee’s areas of strength and building action teams based on the various strengths of your people. I like to use the expression, “Let your employees shine!” This means placing employees in jobs they love to perform and giving them the latitude, resources and responsibilities necessary to shine.


Unfortunately, good companies sometimes do stupid things because they follow antiquated policies, rules and procedures that do not benefit their customers. This has been the case with United Airlines and other companies mentioned in this article. As Sir Richard Branson noted, “Building a business is not rocket science, it’s about having a great idea and seeing it through with integrity.” Branson also reminds us that people make the difference. He said, “Your company should act as a springboard for ambitious employees, not a set of shackles.”


About the Author: Tom Hinton is a popular business speaker and the author of several books, including The Heart & Soul of Culture: How to Transition from an Unconscious to a Conscious Business to Save Your Bottom Line. He can be reached by clicking this link.

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