Tuesday, April 25, 2017

United Airlines Dragging Incident: Rules vs. Guidelines

We've all seen the video of the doctor, who didn't want to be bumped from a UA flight, being dragged and bloodied by security.

It was a public relations disaster for United Airlines, and drew a strong reaction from the public.

It didn't help that, before the incident, United didn't have much goodwill banked with flyers, because of their reputation for poor customer service.

There were several points during the chain of events where this incident could have been prevented:

1. United knew that the crew to be transported to Louisville was in route to the airport before they boarded.  They could have gotten volunteers to give up their seats before boarding.  Instead, they let passengers board and didn't try to bump anyone off until the crew actually reached the gate.

2. Why didn't they offer more money until someone gave up their seat.

3. When they randomly picked the doctor, he was ready to go until he found out there were no more flights that day.  He then said he didn't want to give up his seat because he had patients to see the next day.  At that point, why did they not pick someone else randomly.  Doctors deal with life and death cases–they should have just assumed he had a good reason.

I think it comes down to a training issue: Rules vs. Guidelines

Airlines are very much into rules, which spell out exactly what to do.  No interpretation or judgement.  Now, this is very important for airline safety.  For example, it is good that even experienced pilots use a checklist, so they do not miss any steps.

But, for customer service, well-thought out guidelines should supersede blind obedience to rules.
The difference between a rule and a guideline is that rules apply to one situation, while a guideline can be applied as a template to many situations.

Thus, to run a business only using rules, management needs to anticipate all occurrences in advance.  But, with a guideline, they can trust that employees can apply the guideline to any unforeseen incidents.

In this case, a good guideline for United employees: Pretend you were one of the passengers.  From a passenger's point of view, how would you have wanted the bumping process to have unfolded?