After a massive foul-up with a passenger cost United Airline hundreds of millions in market value and sent who knows how many potential passengers to review their legal rights, management seems to have hit on a sensible policy.
According to a United internal memo obtained by TMZ and verified by the New York Times, the airline told workers that crew scheduling groups could only get seats on overbooked flights "if it is 60 minutes or more before the estimated time of departure."
"This is so the denied boarding process in an overall situation may be implemented in a gate or lobby area and not on board the aircraft," the memo continued. Furthermore, one of the bolded points said crew members would not be able to displace customers who boarded a craft.
Who would have thought it? If you make plans ahead of time, you can achieve your ends and not firmly plant your foot into a pile of ... uh, mud.
The questions is why it would have taken so long for the company to set such a policy. If you've let people onto a plane, which means you've taken their money and put them in a seat, you have set the more than reasonable expectation of a flight. If you then tell the people they must leave the plane because you want to seat someone else, you've created more resentment than should be humanly possible. You may also have broken the law, according to some experts.
United isn't alone. Stories of companies that had senseless or foolish policies or practices, only to trip over them, are hardly unusual. One common characteristic is that the companies are too focused on themselves and not on others.
Not that all self-focus is wrong. Of course an airline has to get its personnel to locations where they are to work on a flight. Sometimes that means commuting from one airport to another on one of the carrier's planes, meaning less room for passengers. It's an issue of balance in how it treats stakeholders. Weighing competing interests can be difficult, as I've mentioned before.
What leads to imbalance, though, is a questionable attitude. Too much attention to the needs of a business can lead people to assume that what is good for the company is good for all. The result is a mania and self-deception.
Companies typically claim to be focused on their customers' interests because without them you don't have a business. That doesn't mean customers get anything and everything they want. There are people who will drain you of time, energy, and money constantly. No matter how much they seem to spend, they're low-value customers because they more than they are worth.
But, barring such people, you need to give attention to customers. As mathematics shows, you can't maximize for more than one variable at a time. If your first consideration is the convenience of your own people and operations, you necessarily put those customers second.
From the outside, it looks as though United did just that. Before this memo circulated, it was apparently acceptable company policy to make people leave a flight after they had taken their seats because whoever was in charge of crew logistics hadn't made plans far enough in advance. The law that covers involuntarily bumping a passenger is based on having a flight that's overbooked with , not a last minute airline need to transport its own workers.
United lost sight of the idea that even when you're balancing interests, there has to be someone whose interests are the deciding factor. When you're comfortable with disrupting the lives of customers for your own convenience, there is something drastically wrong. Something a memo alone, no matter how stern, is likely to fix.