It was such a simple change on United Airlines. Comically mundane, perhaps. But for some United Airlines passengers it seemed to symbolize so much more.

They reacted. They revolted. They voiced their displeasure loudly. They were all over social media in an extremely startling way--and crept into the major news media, too. 

The issue? United Airlines's decision earlier this year to stop serving free cans of tomato juice on its flights. 

Of all the things an airline wants to dig in its heels about with customers, this clearly was not the one worth fighting over. So, United Airlines backed down. 

And in the aftermath of TomatoJuiceGate, people were amazed. They wondered: Wow, do airline passengers really like tomato juice that much? 

As a matter of fact, no. 

Because United Airlines says that the exact same thing is happening now that happened before they stopped serving tomato juice the first time. Namely, almost nobody actually asks for it onboard United Airlines planes.

This news came to us by virtue of a series of interviews that United Airlines's chief digital officer, Linda Jojo, did with the airline industry intelligence platform Skift this spring, and that the site publicized recently. 

In a wide-ranging interview about all kinds of digital initiatives and issues that United Airlines is facing, none drew more knowing laughter from the audience than the tomato juice question. So Jojo made the case:

We did a lot of analysis. We have a lot of data. It's a ridiculously small number of people that actually drink tomato juice on our flights. We count the cans going in. We count the cans going out. We know the answer.

However, apparently those tomato juice drinkers are extremely vocal, and very, very good at social media. And we follow our social media feeds, and so we did put tomato juice back on the planes.

Statistically, they don't drink it, and they still aren't, by the way. But it's back on. There was not like a pent-up demand for tomato juice when we put it back.

Separately, United has said that removing tomato juice wasn't even a cost-cutting move. They just tried getting rid of it because people weren't drinking it--and completely got burned by the decision. 

One United source voiced amazement to CNBC at the time that the airline wound up "in full apology mode" over tomato juice, "although the issue ... is a more minor one compared to the forced removal of customers or suffocating dogs."

So what lessons do we draw from this? Mainly that it's so often the tiny, unanticipated detail that a business's fortunes can turn on--and that it's often not worth the effort to argue with customers about what they want.

In this case? They want safety, as much comfort as they can get, an on-time arrival--and apparently, a couple of cans of tomato juice stored in the galley, in case anyone ever asks for them. 

Which they won't.

Here's the video from Jojo's Skift interview. The knowing laughter begins at 19:55.

Published on: Sep 14, 2018
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