United Airline – treating our safety as a branding exercise

It’s interesting how this pandemic is bringing out out the best and the worst of people and corporations. The pandemic is also revealing these behaviors more clearly than most things, because it’s a matter of life and death.

Some of the cellular provides deserve praise for providing more data at no charge. One of the food delivery companies, Cavier, has reduced their charges to restaurants, while others like Grubhub has raised them and done some other sketchy things to take more fees from restaurants. One example is putting their own phone numbers in restaurant listings on Yelp and elsewhere, forwarding those calls to the restaurant, and charging the restaurant a “marketing fee.”

And then there’s United Airlines that’s just being stupid.  When I now think of United, an image pops up that was on television last week:  a plane packed full of passengers with barely an empty seat.

The story is about to a doctor trying to make his way back to his home in San Francisco from working on Covid-19 patients at a hospital in New York City. He had taken care to check with United beforehand to insure the airline would keep the middle seats empty. He was concerned, not only about his own safety, but the safety of others. In spite of being assured the plane would have empty middle seats, once he boarded he found a fully loaded plane.

With this one scene etched in my mind, I doubt I will will ever fly United until the disease is gone and we all can be vaccinated. How could it not dawn on United that packing a third more passengers on the plane would result in customers such as me refusing to fly them. It shows their word means nothing and the safety of their customers are being ignored. Like so many things airlines do, it’s short-sighted and callous.

Coincidently, while writing this column I received an email from Scott Kirby, United’s CEO. He wrote to me as a million-miler United flyer.

“Safety has always been our most important value at United, and during this crisis it’s taken on a new and different significance. We know it will be top-of-mind for you when you resume traveling. So I’m proud to begin my time as CEO by introducing United CleanPlus℠, a new standard of cleanliness and safety, in partnership with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic.

United CleanPlus is our commitment to putting health and safety at the forefront of your journey, with the goal of delivering an industry-leading standard of cleanliness. Teaming up with Clorox allows us to leverage expertise from the #1 trusted brand for powerful cleaning and disinfecting. And Cleveland Clinic is advising us on our cleaning and disinfection protocols so we can innovate quickly as we learn more about how to protect against COVID-19. As you consider your next trip, we’ll be “United Together” with you to help ensure your safety from lobby to landing.

Now, more than ever, your loyalty is so deeply appreciated by every member of the United family. I thank you and the essential workers of our airline for all your support. Even in these difficult times, I’m looking forward to the future of United.”

United is addressing the safety issue, not by proper distancing and requiring the wearing of masks, but by simply disinfecting the plane between flights. That may protect passengers from the passengers that just embarked, but does nothing to protect them from the passengers that just boarded alongside them.

United’s is treating this as a branding exercise, leveraging the Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic brands, thinking that will make us feel more comfortable. Clearly they don’t know their customers or the professional business traveler.

I’m just amazed how Mr. Kirby thinks this helps us to be more safe.  If he was serious about protecting our safety and that of his employees, he would require the mandatory wearing of masks and the removal of any passenger that refused. He would guarantee to keep middle rows empty to provide a little bit of safe space.

Once again United has taken the PR approach to safety, while ignoring the facts and the science. In my unscientific survey of friends who do a lot of flying, few said they would be flying in the next twelve months and nearly all cited the image of that doctor on the United flight when asked why. All the press releases and emails cannot undo that image of the crowded plan when we now think of United.

by Phil Baker