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Friday, 7 July 2017

Is saying, "as a goodwill gesture…" really an apology?

By now the whole world knows about Doctor David Dao who needed hospital treatment after being dragged off a United Airlines flight.

And many of us, meanwhile, will have heard that United Airlines again allowed too many passengers to board a plane, this time on a flight from Houston to Boston, resulting in a mother having to hold her 27 month old son on her lap in violation of FAA safety guidelines. The mother did not protest too strongly because she "did not want anyone to get hurt," the experience of Dr. Dao still fresh in her memory. (You can read about that here.)

This is the statement from United Airlines on this most recent event as reported by ABC News:
"On a recent flight from Houston to Boston, we inaccurately scanned the boarding pass of Ms. Yamauchi's son," the statement read. "As a result, her son's seat appeared to be not checked in, and we released his seat to another customer, and Ms. Yamauchi held her son for the flight."
It continued, "We deeply apologize to Ms. Yamauchi and her son for this experience. We are refunding their tickets and providing compensation as a goodwill gesture. We are also working with our employees to prevent this from happening again."

From my experience in quality management, albeit in healthcare and design, development and production, allow me three general observations with lessons beyond the airline industry.

1. "… working with our employees to prevent this from happening again."

Put very simply, United Airlines top management have just thrown their employees under the bus but, not to worry, management will work with their employees to fix the problem. Read: we will give the employees concerned a dressing down and explain to them how they screwed up - in words they can really understand!

One of my quality heroes is Dr. W. Edwards Deming who was passionate about not “blaming” workers for poor quality when so much of the problem was because "the system" allowed it to happen. It is top management who are responsible for the system. Maybe one or more workers did screw up, but the fact remains that the system allowed too many passengers to board the plane, and this mere weeks after their experience with Dr. Dao. "Working with their employees" might help somewhat, but it is even less of a guarantee once there is employee turnover and a new crop of employees takes over. The problem is in the system more than with the employees. That is a management responsibility.

2. Violation of FAA safety guidelines

Hello?  Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? A cabin crew member of my acquaintance decades ago told me that the most important responsibility of cabin crew is the safety of passengers. Has that changed? The element of safety is completely lacking in the reported statement by United Airlines. The fact that no serious injury occurred is no excuse for placing the child at risk - something that the system did not prevent from happening.

3. "… providing compensation as a goodwill gesture."

Let's not play with words. Compensation is something that is due, either for work performed or as a recompense for loss, injury, or suffering. It is an insult to say you are paying compensation "as a goodwill gesture." It is also an implicit denial of responsibility for the loss, injury or suffering for which compensation is being paid. The depth of the apology ("We deeply apologize…") is revealed as actually being very shallow indeed.

The four words, "as a goodwill gesture," are also a huge PR gaffe. I have no reason to suspect that top management at United Airlines really have the importance of their customers as people at heart, that customer satisfaction has any value beyond dollars and cents. In fact, I doubt that they would even understand the intent of this paragraph.

In my opinion, if United Airlines really wants to improve as a company, their top management needs to have an attitude transplant to understand what it means to be responsible for the system and the inter-related processes required to ensure the quality service it is supposed to produce.

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