By now, most everyone is aware of United Airlines mistreatment of Dr. David Dao, who was bloodied and dragged off of a flight by O’Hare International Airport security for refusing to heed airline employee orders to give up his seat. Having taken last week off, your Friday Forecasters are admittedly late to the arrival gate on this topic, which has been steady fodder for pundits, late night comics, and outraged social media warriors. While the incident was indeed shocking, and will no doubt be the subject of armchair quarterbacking in marketing and public relations classes for many years to come, we believe the depth of animus it has ignited is rooted in a deeper truth. United’s actions and the buffoonish response of its CEO Oscar Munoz, have exposed a raw nerve the public has suspected for some time: that airlines such as United really don’t give a sh*t about us.
Recall the days when the notion of flying was glamorous, even thrilling. Fast forward to today and it has all of the appeal of a back-of-the-bus ride across the desert with live chickens. How did we get here? Through a steady series of worst business practices that are akin to death by a thousand cuts. First the leg room and space were taken away. Now, if the coach passenger in front of you reclines their seat, they’re likely to snap the lid off your laptop, so better forego those elaborate plans to “get things done” at 35,000 feet. Given two out of three Americans are considered overweight or obese by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that spatial deprivation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Beware, however: leaning into the aisle away from your seatmate to avoid their girth spillage significantly increases your risk of death -- by decapitation from a drink cart.
But that’s just the beginning of the indignities: exorbitant fees to check bags have resulted in clogged boarding gates where a majority of passengers appear to be hauling half their worldly goods in queues that rival a third-world country bread line. Alas, you can get on early – just surrender your first born or pay the fee. Pillows and blankets? You’d have better luck finding a Pyrenean Ibex. Need to anesthetize yourself from all the stress with a libation or two? We only take credit, thank you. It makes us wonder: what’s next? Upselling cabin pressure?
To be fair, airlines will tell you that all of these measures are the result of the public’s desire for cheap airfare pitted against the blunt forces of unionized labor and escalating fuel costs. But the simple fact is: we, the public, don’t believe you. For an industry that is supposed to be service-based, you come across as a greedy, nickel and diming, compassionless and bureaucratic. The beating of Dr. Dao is the most pungent proof in support of this set of assumptions.
It starts with your pricing model. Today, as never before, consumers have ready access to information that empowers them to make intelligent buying decisions. Think of car buying, for example, and how the ability to access information on the Internet has leveled the playing field between marketer and consumer. Yet, your variable pricing model – despite the efforts of Google Flights and the like – remains a black box of fluidity driven by algorithms the average person cannot make heads or tails of. Everything about the process, from the price you pay, to the order you board, to which lavatory you can use, fosters a sense of inequality and subjugation. Even simple things – like entreaties over the PA from the gate agent to gate check bags owing to no overhead space – are often found to be false. No wonder the response to Dr. Dao’s plight feels so personal – it is.
So how does the airlines industry begin to build the public’s trust? It might start be standardizing practices – such as boarding – so that the rules of engagement are not different on every carrier. It could include building a proper airplane infrastructure that allows the average passenger to be comfortable – without perceiving to pay a super-premium. (Think of it like a builder who includes the cost of roads and sidewalks in the price of their homes). And it may very well mean adhering to a variable pricing model that offers more transparency and clarity, but still allows the carrier to leverage scarcity mentality – i.e., so many seats in coach are sold at a fixed rate, and once those are sold out, the price goes up. These sorts of measures would at least allow the consumer to feel like they had a bit more control over the situation versus feeling helpless and at the mercy of onerous forces. Finally, it could start with acknowledgement that the entire industry – not just United Airlines – has an imperative to do better.
You see, we believe the public is actually forgiving. They’re still lining up at Subway for foot longs, despite the franchise’s longtime spokesman being a convicted pedophile. They are still buying Pepsi after the brand witheringly discovering Kendall Jenner doesn’t matter (as much), and they will continue to tune in Fox News, while the network’s former ratings king spins under some rock. But, as Mr. Munoz discovered, the insincere, half-cocked apology will be met with much unexpected turbulence. Therefore, we advise: please remain seated, until the captain announces how to correct course.
Colleen Ferrier is a seasoned direct marketing expert who specializes in guiding integrated direct-to-consumer campaigns with an acute focus on ROI. Her broad experience has included management oversight of marketing, operations, media, and international distribution. The campaigns she has been instrumental in helping lead to success across her 15+ year career include Pillow Pets, Little Giant Ladder, Dream Lites, and Stompeez. Ferrier has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Augusta University, Georgia.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO/DoubleFlex. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with a Concentration in Marketing and Sales from Marylhurst University.