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United Airlines failure was not a technical issue, it was the prioritising of policy over values

The CEO of United Airlines admittance that the removal of a passenger was a ‘mistake of epic proportions’ should act as the catalyst for a major business transformation exercise across the brand. Doing so would help address deep-rooted issues, which clearly prioritise policy over values and principles. This is according to Stuart Williamson, Associate Director at management consultancy and end to end supply chain management specialists, Crimson & Co.

Earlier this week, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, and president Scott Kirby, were called before the House Transportation Committee to explain the forced removal of a passenger from one of its airlines. During the hearing Munoz admitted the failing of the airline in handling the situation and stated the incident represented a ‘turning point’ for the organisation and its 87,000 employees.

In the days leading up to the hearing, evidence of this ‘turning- point’ had been seen in the releasing of a 10-point culture change plan, which would reflect how the airline proposed to serve, fly and treat customers in the future. Stuart suggests that while the changes are a step in the right direction, internally, issues still need to be addressed, specifically at senior management level, which initially dismissed the incident, leading to the massive public backlash against the brand:

“The United Airlines incident is arguably one of the biggest PR disasters of a generation and after some questionable tactics in the early days of the event, the business has been desperately trying to rectify the situation. As part of that process the introduction of a 10-point culture change programme aims to address specific elements of its service and how it plans to treat customers in the future. While the points included demonstrate clear action on the airlines part, it is imperative that the same cultural review process is carried out internally.

“Critically, the culture of an organisation is set at the top – initially, the senior management team at United Airlines dismissed the evidence suggesting a favouring of policy over the customer, and this is where the real blunder lies. No one is talking about this as a failure of technology within its booking system. This is a failure of the culture and to correct this the entire organisation will need to undertake a culture and change management review exercise.

“The first step of this process looks at the style and direction of the organisational leadership model.

“Ultimately, leadership behaviour must be transparent, reflecting how it wishes its staff to perform and in-turn, how it then wishes to treat its customers. For this to be effective you need to be clear on your values and these are then filtered down throughout the remainder of the business, which then help shape the policies and procedures.

“For United Airlines, this will not happen overnight and they will not be able to do this alone – what we might therefore see is the enlisting of an external consultancy whose focus is to help identify the pitfalls within the current culture and implement actions to bring about change,” concludes Stuart.


Published in May 2017



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