By John Williams and Ira Dember
In our previous post, we spotlighted United Airlines’ disastrous behavior on Sunday 4/9/17 — bodily dragging a paid-for and lawfully seated passenger from a flight preparing to depart Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A smartphone video of this event went viral, costing United untold millions of dollars in damage to its brand.
What could United have done differently? Start with a corporate policy change, put in force via changes in the airline’s standard procedures, and supported by thorough training to make the change really work as intended.
With these changes in place, imagine a different scenario aboard United 3411 at O’Hare last Sunday.
Picture it: the flight is poised to depart, but United has an urgent need to resolve an overbooking situation quickly and without angering passengers.
The airline offers a cash reward to entice passengers to do a voluntary bump, i.e., agree to give up their seat and take the next flight out. But this time, no one is biting. So United keeps upping its cash offer.
In the actual situation last Sunday, the airline stopped the ‘bidding’ at $1,000 and started using strong-arm tactics. Brute force. We know how that worked out.
Here’s how United could have instead transformed this sticky situation into a headline-grabbing brand win.
After no one takes the $1,000 offer, imagine a United Airlines representative on the plane’s loudspeaker, continuing the bidding…
“Okay, I know you want to get where you’re going, but everyone has their price!” (Said with a smile in the voice. Make it playful.)
“Who’ll take a later flight for a reward of $1,500?” (Silence.)
“Do I hear $2,000?” (Silence.)
“Ah, I see some eyes lighting up! Ladies and gentlemen, we are up to $4,000. Imagine what you could do with an extra four thousand dollars for just a few extra hours of your time. Remember, only one person will get to take this incredible offer. When it’s gone, it’s gone!” (Still silence.)
“Okay, folks, the bidding is up to $5,000 — ah, we have a taker! Congratulations!” (Passengers spontaneously erupt in thunderous applause and cheers.)
Such a video could have gone just as viral, and made media headlines. In fact, if such instances were to happen every once in a while, it would be terrific for United — handing the airline some of the cheapest positive publicity it could hope for.
For this powerful and cost-effective strategy to work, the only significant policy change would be lifting the cap on voluntary-bump rewards.
That’s right: the bidding should have no limit, like a stakes table in Vegas. Let bidding run to $10,000, $20,000, $50,000, it does not matter because the resulting publicity in such rare instances would be worth millions.
And the ‘winning’ passenger would be a hero, not a victim.
The airline would win, too, because customers would flock to buy tickets on United, in the magical belief that they too could win a stupendous amount of money in a rare bidding situation, like on a game show.
The celebrity, the money, the excitement — people would be drawn to all of this.
That’s how United could turn remarkably self-destructive corporate behavior into a huge win for the brand and passengers alike.