May 2, 2017

Like the rest of the world after April 9, 2017, I've repeatedly watched the videos of Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from United flight 3411. With the emergence of each new cell phone video, with each twisted angle, the mix of revulsion and disbelief has grown. And with each viewing, the same questions come to mind: “Could that happen to someone I know? To someone I love? To me?”

Almost immediately, the United backlash began. Customers took to Twitter with #BoycottUnitedAirlines and photos of United branded credit cards cut into pieces. In mere days, United’s stock fell four percent and the company’s market value plummeted by $1 billion. It rose slightly after United’s CEO Oscar Munoz issued an initial apology, but fell again when he backpedaled.

Embarrassed by my loyalty

In full transparency, I was on a United flight that day—April 9th. I flew again on United a few days later, on a ticket purchased weeks earlier. And today, I’m writing this aboard another United flight—heading home from a week of work in San Francisco. I booked this flight after the Dr. Dao incident; I had other options, yet I chose this flight. I chose this airline.

I booked this flight after the Dr. Dao incident; I had other options, yet I chose this flight. I chose this airline. And I'm embarrassed by my decision.

I’m embarrassed for a number of reasons: most notably because it wasn’t the actual “dragging off the plane” that caused me the most angst. (Undoubtedly, that was a horrible, horrible experience.) It was Munoz’s response. As someone who is passionate about customer experiences and has devoted her life to exceptional customer service, Munoz’s response was colossally horrific. To blame the customer, to justify his assault, was embarrassing to everyone associated with the airline, including every current and would-be customer.

Yet here I am. Like most of my United flights, this one is uneventful. This one is good. The boarding was fast, the captain is chatty (and seemingly competent), the plane is clean, and the flight attendants are cordial. One even offered to “buy me a glass of wine” after he accidentally dropped something on me.

Like any relationship, loyalty is complicated

Part of my loyalty, is of course, because of my history. I’m far past my first million miles on United, which means I’m at least gilded Gold forever. And while I was downgraded a few years back from ridiculous Up in the Air “living in airports” status, Platinum does afford me welcome conveniences. But loyalty runs deeper and stickier than guaranteed exit row seats and free house champagne.

Let’s face it, I could call any of the other major U.S. carriers today and get them to match my status. Every airline relishes in the opportunity to steal frequent fliers. And since I already have Gold for life, I really don’t need to fly United in order to stay “relevant-enough” with them. And truth be told: United’s presence in my home airport is relatively sad. No United Club. Ugly terminal. Few direct flights. Sigh.

And hell yes, the brutal treatment of Dr. Dao and the subsequent victim-blaming goes against my personal values. I am not that type of person, I do not condone that type of behavior, and I do not work for that type of company.

But I still won’t leave United. Sometimes being loyal to a brand

The true test of loyalty

“The truest test of loyalty is when something goes wrong,” explains Rick Delisi, co-author of The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty. And that’s kind of it for me: the truest test of loyalty is when something goes wrong, and the wrong didn’t happen to me.

There it is. I said it. The wrong didn’t happen to me, or to anyone I know or love. And that is why I am still sitting in a United Airlines’ seat. Seat 21E to be exact. Exit row, right side, my favorite if the first-class upgrade gods are feeling stingy. And based on this full (not oversold, I might add) flight, I am not alone with this complicated loyalty.

Yes, I like United and United has not wronged me.

Actions speak louder than words

On April 27th, Munoz sent an email to fliers of the airline. Titled “Actions Speak Louder than Words,” the message was less an apology and more of a promise and a proclamation. “It's not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.”

When reflecting on the “why” of the incident, Munoz wrote, “It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

“It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.” - Oscar Munoz

Oh, to be proud, again

United is not the first company to fail greatly—Union Carbide, Hyatt Hotels, BP, Nike—nor the first to publicly change policy and processes during the aftershock. Perhaps my loyalty is clouding my judgment, but this CEO response feels different than most.

“I believe we must go further in redefining what United's corporate citizenship looks like in our society,” wrote Munoz. “You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate.”

And no, I am not saying that any amount of social responsibility takes away from the tragedy that Dr. Dao and his fellow passengers experienced. I am saying that this incident seems to have impacted United deeper than their pocketbook.

“Our goal,” Munoz continued, “should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say,

I’m still embarrassed that I won’t give United up. And while I know I’m not a bad person for my decision; I am a hypocrite. I’m sanctimoniously taking a non-stance because I trust that United will continue to do right by me and those around me. That once again I will be proud to say, “I fly United.” In the meantime, I’ll take that glass of wine now, please.

When she's not packing suitcases or unpacking boxes, Sarah guides the editorial content for all Relate publications and events. Her favorite subjects are customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Sarah’s most difficult personal relationship is with collections—they make moving difficult—yet, she’s still managed to amass too many addresses, books, corgis, and gym clothes. Find her on Twitter at: @stealeyreed.