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DEBACLE United Airlines may need reboot to fly high again

The Chicago Tribune on United Airlines' treatment of passengers:

The following editorial is republished from the April 11 Chicago Tribune. Staff-written editorials will resume next week.

With much of the world -- thanks to social media -- appalled at United Airlines for having a passenger dragged off a Chicago-to-Louisville, Kentucky, flight, we're reminded of the story of how an airline put one of its customers first:

Kerry Drake was flying from San Francisco to Lubbock, Texas, to visit his dying mother. The flight was delayed and he risked missing his connection -- the last of the night. Drake sobbed in his seat, distraught at the thought of not seeing his mother one last time. Flight attendants noticed, consoled him and notified the pilot, who radioed ahead. When the plane landed, a gate agent was poised: "Mr. Drake, we've been expecting you." Airline employees held the connecting flight, despite the imperative to operate on-time, and Drake got to his mother's bedside in time.

That well-documented event happened in 2013, and the airline was ... United. So in extraordinary circumstances, employees of any airline can rise to the occasion, treating passengers with respect and kindness, not as chattel. The difference is individual initiative. Whatever motivated United personnel to show compassion to Drake was fully lacking Sunday at O'Hare International Airport, where employees thought only of the need to bump four passengers at random to make room for crew members who needed to get to Louisville. When one man refused to give up his seat, he was told, in effect, "get out or else," and then was roughed up and hauled away by Chicago aviation officers. It was an unconscionable act of violence in "the friendly skies" -- captured on smartphones.

If only United's employees had made a different decision: to offer more than $800 or $1,000 (accounts vary) in compensation, which passengers didn't think was enough. Or tell the four employees to drive south. Or get creative and offer four passengers a fancy limo ride to Louisville, plus tickets to "Hamilton." Anything! (Besides having one passenger beaten up, that is.)

Because employees under pressure risk making terrible decisions that alienate customers, companies prioritize customer service and invest heavily in training. Many fail at the job. Everyone is attuned to the difference between good and bad customer service. The best companies work hard at teaching workers to be positive and thoughtful problem-solvers -- to the point that good service becomes part of the culture. When Starbucks in 2008 was going through a period of sloppiness, CEO Howard Schultz shut down his coffee shops for three hours of training, then rebooted with a splashy promise that every barista would make every drink perfect or "make it right."

We checked in with a recently trained Starbucks barista who said pleasing customers can be challenging. Some are grumpy, some are confused. But when a customer asks for a nonfat latte and then complains because it's not an iced cappuccino, a properly trained barista doesn't scold the customer for misordering. "You say, 'I'm so sorry I made your drink wrong. Let me remake it for you.'"

United, by contrast, seemed lost after its disastrous blunder. CEO Oscar Munoz bungled several apologies, making United an international target of scorn, before he finally sounded the right note of contrition Tuesday, declaring, "No one should ever be mistreated this way."

This will not be an easy fix. United's customer problems run deep, back at least a decade to its stint in bankruptcy court. Then came struggles integrating Continental Airlines after the 2010 merger with United. When Munoz was new on the job in 2015, he visited the Tribune Editorial Board and acknowledged that flights were arriving late, employees felt beaten down and customers were seething.

Munoz vowed to do better by everyone, and we believed him. Now he's running out of chances with the flying public. Something went terribly wrong for United at O'Hare, and in management's subsequent attempts at damage control when the situation called for contrition.

This will go down in business history as one of the worst-ever customer service experiences. To retrain employees and appease angry customers, Munoz may have to do something as dramatic as the Starbucks shutdown-and-reboot. There are plenty of airlines out there. United has given many flyers an incentive to try them.

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