How to make United Airlines keep its promises

You could almost hear a collective groan from the traveling public last week when United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz promised a congressional hearing that his airline would “do better” in the wake of the David Dao dragging incident.

Better than what, exactly?

Even before the airline called law enforcement to have the doctor hauled off a flight from Chicago to Louisville — an incident captured on video and widely reshared — the airline was no customer-service star. It scored a 70 out of a possible 100 points (that’s a C-, kids) on the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, the lowest among legacy carriers and a point below no-frills Allegiant Air.

Complaining about United had become a hobby for air travelers. It ranked No. 2 for total passenger complaints, behind troubled American Airlines. The top grievances: flight problems, baggage issues and customer service.

Even before the shameful passenger expulsion, passengers could have been forgiven for wondering if things could get any worse. The answer, of course, was: Yes.

The circus of congressional hearings aside, it’s worth asking if meaningful change is possible. Perhaps. Either way, there are methods of ensuring any travel company, not just an airline, will keep its promises.

Passengers doubt that air travel will improve in the wake of the Dao hearings. “Algorithms have replaced genuine customer service,” complains Kevin Farris, a Chicago-based salesman. “It’s all who you are, what you spend and your class of ticket. I don’t believe a word of what the airlines say that they’re going to do to fix their broken system.”

Congress seems skeptical, too. Late last week, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation that would prohibit airlines from imposing fees, including cancellation, change and bag fees, that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs of the services provided. Congressmen Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Adam Kinzinger ,R-Ill., started beating the drum on their Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act to direct the Federal Aviation Administration to establish minimum seat-size standards necessary to ensure the safety and health of airplane passengers. If these measures passed, United would have to keep its promises.

It’s difficult to fully describe the level of consumer anger against airlines — indeed, against the entire travel industry. It’s not just that travelers are fed up but that they feel completely powerless.

“What choice does the public have?” asks Evelyn Spencer, a travel agent from Chadds Ford, Pa. “Airline A, B … or C? The airlines know it and feel they owe the public nothing.”

How do you get a travel company to keep its promises? Fortunately, I know, because I see it happen every day. It all starts with a public pledge like the one Munoz made. At some point, he’ll have to put it in writing, and when he does, he’ll probably wrap it in a preposterous advertising slogan, like “the world’s most trusted airline.” Please stop laughing. It’s already been tried.

Of course, the actual contract — the legal agreement between you and the company — will tell you something quite different. It will say you have no rights, and the airline, cruise line or hotel can do whatever it pleases.

Too often, customers forget that they can lean on the public promises, the “customer commitments” and the advertising slogans when they’re up against a rigorous legal contract (see below). For example, did you know Delta Air Lines promises to offer you “the lowest fare available”? That Avis pledges a “stress-free car rental experience” in its corporate mission statement? And that Carnival Cruises even assures it will do “everything it can to give our guests a lifetime of memories”?

Every day, I see consumers invoking these lofty promises to get fair resolutions to a consumer problem. The best ones do so quietly, methodically and politely, and in writing. You can, too.

Ultimately, the strongest argument is the one you’ll almost certainly be able to deploy soon: You lied.

To actually do better, United would need to spread out its seats to give passengers a humane amount of personal space. It would have to drop some of its unconscionable fees for ticket changes, seat reservations and other ancillary charges. And it would need to embrace a customer-first philosophy that flows through its corporate DNA. That’s highly unlikely.

United isn’t alone. A few days ago, American Airlines, which assured Congress it would focus on consumers and publicly guarantees “safe, dependable and friendly air transportation,” revealed plans to shrink the amount of space between some of its economy-class seats by two inches. Some consumers saw that as neither safe nor friendly, and as yet another promise broken.

American Airlines is taking away more legroom in economy, report says
“We know a company is telling the truth by their history of promise keeping,” customer service expert Chip Bell says. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Three places companies hide their promises

• In a corporate mission statement or vision statement: These are buried deep on a company website. Sometimes, they are not even published online. They can usually be found with an online search of the company name along with the phrase “mission statement” or “vision statement.”

• In a trade group “bill of rights”: Sometimes, trade groups pick up the mantle of customer service for the entire industry. Take cruises, which have their own cruise industry “passenger bill of rights.” The bill guarantees, among other things, the right to a full refund for a trip that is canceled because of mechanical failures.

• In advertisements or public statements by executives: Fly the “friendly” skies? Seriously, folks. Invoking a line from an ad or a quote from a CEO is often enough to make a company give you the compensation you deserve. I’ve seen it time and again.

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