Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
Saying please and thank you always adds an air of decency.
It’s important, though, that your words and your actions are in close concert. Especially in times like these.
Which makes me return to the thorny subject of United Airlines.
After the government bailed out airlines with around $58 billion of taxpayer money, there was something warming about receiving an email from United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz.
It stumbled a little in the beginning. Munoz said he hoped I and my family were well. Not the best way to start an email.
He went on, however, to explain why airlines are deemed essential enterprises. They’re connectors of people.
He then acknowledged the money his airline was receiving came from us, his very customers:
I want to relay to you, in as deeply personal a way I can, the heartfelt appreciation of my 100,000 United team members and their families for this vital public assistance to keep America and United flying for you.
Too often, it seems large companies stand first in line to collect free government money without even a nod toward whose money it really is.
Munoz insisted the money would be put to good use:
This support will save jobs in our business and many others. And it allows us time to make decisions about the future of our airline to ensure that we can offer you the service you deserve and have come to expect as our customers.
About that service you deserve.
When I read those words, I confess to pausing. You see, at the time Munoz sent this email, United was refusing to refund passengers for flights the airline canceled, unless the airline no longer flew to that destination. It was offering only travel vouchers or rebooking.
It wasn’t the only airline doing this. However, some — like American Airlines — decided to treat passengers better.
After all, some of these passengers may suddenly need that refund money desperately.
Moreover, many believe United should refund that money by law. Because that’s what the law says they should.
Yet here was United saying “thanks for the free money, but we’re still keeping the money you gave us for flights we canceled, just to boost our cash reserves.”
The lesson here is clear. People are suffering. Your company, thanks to its highly talented lobbyists, has pushed its way to the front of the line for free money.
It’s clearly a good gesture to show your gratitude. But how many vacationers and small business owners, fighting for their careers, looked at your email with a touch of scorn, as you tried to take advantage of the fact that they booked with you in good faith?
A week after the Munoz email, the Department of Transportation declared that yes, airlines should be offering refunds for flights they cancel.
Naturally, I asked United for its view. Its spokeswoman offered me many words:
Since the start of the COVID-19 health event we have implemented new policies to give our customers flexibility during these extraordinary times by allowing them to change their travel plans without a fee. Passengers can automatically rebook eligible trips to an alternative flight for no fee or request an electronic travel certificate, so they can choose a flight in the future. Eligible travelers on domestic flights – and now customers with international tickets – can request a refund on United.com or may call our contact centers if their flights have been severely adjusted or service to their destination suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19.
Some might translate this as: No, we really weren’t forthcoming with those refunds, were we? Well, I suppose we’ll have to be more pliant now, even for international flights.
This all occurred after United had spent the previous three years rebuilding its image — and with some success — after the iconic dragging-a-bleeding-customer-off-a-plane incident.
Too often, there isn’t enough choice among airlines. Many airlines believe, therefore, they can arbitrarily change the rules whenever it suits them.
One thing is somewhat likely: customers won’t forget. And when the virus begins to pass, they’ll remember the brands that spoke sincerely and treated them well — and those that tried to take advantage.
And they’ll say thanks, but no thanks.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com. More from Inc.
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