"People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel."
Both airlines have put passengers through some horrible experiences so far this year. Yet I'm struck by the overall reaction--the feelings, to put it directly--that many people seem to have had about them after these events.
For Southwest, this is largely about the Dallas-bound flight last month that made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after one of its engines exploded. One passenger, Jennifer Riordan, was killed after horrifically being pulled halfway out of the cabin at 30,000-plus feet, through a broken window. Everyone else aboard was scared. Lawsuits are coming.
Overall reaction? Awe and gratitude for Southwest's heroic pilots.
For United, the most recent troubles start with the death of a passenger's dog in an overhead bin. It follows with the news that more dogs died on United last year than any other airline--data that was skewed a bit because United was the only airline to allow certain high-risk breeds aboard its planes.
Overall reaction? Torches and pitchforks for the airline that kills dogs.
Here's another way to look at it: Southwest's pilots and crew get invited to the White House and pose with President Trump. United's PR problems grow so bad that they have to hire President Obama's old spokesperson.
So, what gives, exactly? It's almost enough to make you feel bad for United.
Or maybe not--precisely because more people have felt bad because of United to begin with.
Or to paraphrase Maya Angelou, people don't remember the details; they remember the feelings.
And those feelings develop based on our cumulative experiences: a combination of the shared experiences we all have from following the news, and our personal experiences interacting with each brand--or any brand for that matter.
Try it. Ask a casual flier for the most recent thing he or she remembers about United Airlines before the dog issue. I'll bet what comes up is the 2017 beating of passenger David Dao. They might not remember his name, but they'll remember the feeling: the images of Dao afterward, and how the whole thing seemed to drag on forever in the media (largely because of the ham-fisted way United originally reacted).
Now, ask that same person about Southwest Airlines. I'm truly not sure what big story (prior to Flight 1380) that people would immediately and largely discuss. Instead, you'd hear more about personal experiences--the kinds of things that explain why they're consistently ranked toward the top of consumer surveys.
It's not always a concrete, tangible thing that makes the difference. Southwest offers two free bags to all passengers; United doesn't. They mostly fly different routes. The clientele overlaps but isn't 100 percent similar.
But if you're not a status flier, and you board a plane, do you even remember which airline you flew months or even years later? It's only the things that are truly different that make an impression: the open seating on Southwest (which some people love and others loathe) for example, or the singing flight attendants.
Let's put it this way. Can you imagine a United Airlines employee belting out "I'll Be Home for Christmas" before a Dec. 25 flight like this woman did? For that matter, it's hard to imagine someone running the Twitter feed for another airline deciding to live-tweet a college basketball game for a passenger during flight.
I truly say all of this without any animus for United Airlines; I can't honestly remember a bad experience with them. However, I also can't remember a personally great experience with them, either.
Bad things happen to every company; it's inevitable. There are some things you can't control. But there are also things you can control, like creating the kind of culture that leads employees to do little things that improve the way passengers feel about a brand.
It's the difference between United employees nearly revolting over a plan to revamp their bonus program, and Southwest employees who were eager to talk with me recently about how much they love theirs.
It's the different between Oscar Munoz of United standing firm and blaming a passenger for far too long last year, and Gary Kelly of Southwest recording a video apology for Flight 1380 within hours after the tragedy--and then offering every passenger $5,000 and a $1,000 voucher, no strings attached.
It's the difference between United being vilified for a series of incidents that harmed animals, and Southwest generally being praised for an accident that killed a human passenger.
It's not really about what either of them did last month, or the month before that. It's about what they've done over the years to make us feel. And that's why it's so hard to change.