A lesson for United Airlines over passenger removal: rules must allow for common sense

Albert Cheng says employees who deal with the public must be given discretion to deviate from protocol when it is safe to do so, and the airline isn’t the only organisation that needs to do better in this regard

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 6:46pm

It is ironic for PRWeek to have named United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz “Communicator of the Year”, given how United mishandled an overbooked flight. It quickly acknowledged the public outrage. In an article criticising United’s actions, the magazine highlighted Munoz’s ill-conceived memo to staff, which said United employees had “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this”.

“While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right,” he said. In effect, Munoz was condoning the United corporate culture of intransigence to the extent of being inhumane.

United Airlines’ boss Oscar Munoz should have followed this four-point checklist

Instead of offering better incentives for volunteers to take the next flight, the crew of Flight 3411 made the worst call by adhering to the company protocol to summon security officers of the Chicago Department of Aviation to intervene. As a result, the situation turned violent as an elderly Asian-American doctor was brutally dragged off the plane.

The subsequent global outrage has yet to subside.

It remains to be seen how United’s tarnished image will translate into financial losses in terms of market capitalisation and business foregone. Yet, it is crystal clear that blindly following established business procedures can have dire consequences.

As far as aviation safety and security is concerned, there is little room for discretion on the spot. However, in this situation, neither the aircraft nor any passenger on board were in any perceivable danger. Yet, crew members decided to get law enforcement involved. The situation was primarily a business one and should have entailed a much more customer-friendly solution. The crew members should have exercised common sense to defuse rather than heighten the tension.

The key takeaway from the United blunder is obvious. In every business protocol and procedure manual, there should be a caveat. Management should leave room for frontline employees to give responses in the field that may deviate from the letter of the book, written perhaps by lawyers and accountants in the comfort of their offices. Treating those who one is supposed to serve with respect, dignity and humanity should be at the core of every service provider.

United Airlines will no longer use police to eject people from overbooked flights

Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s own flag carrier, should learn from United’s costly mistake. Cathay last month reported a net loss of HK$575 million, and is under pressure to do better. It is even more important for Cathay not to become short-sighted in these challenging times. To remain competitive, its ground and cabin crews must be given adequate leeway to exercise discretion to meet customers’ needs, within reasonable bounds.

Their minds must be set at ease, so they do not have to worry too much about adverse internal consequences every time they try to bend the rules a little to make it more comfortable for their customers.

Donald Tsang sent to hospital with apparent breathing problem

A parallel can also be drawn for civil servants. The way the law enforcement bodies have mistreated former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is a case in point. When he was transferred to court for sentencing, Tsang was handcuffed. When he was sent to hospital from prison, he was again handcuffed and chained by correctional officers. It seems that none of the officers had bothered to ask whether this was necessary or appropriate.

According to police veterans, under the rules, handcuffs should only be used for those who may possibly flee, hurt themselves or cause harm to others.

At 72, Tsang is the former head of the Hong Kong special administrative region. He is also a devoted Catholic with no record of violence. Besides, he is of slight build and has been ill. In short, he does not present any perceivable security threat.

Tsang is but a high-profile case. Others aged suspects and prisoners who pose no conceivable threat also deserve flexible treatment. Security considerations aside, the notions of mercy and humanity need to be accommodated somehow, somewhere in authorities’ guidebooks.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk