United Social Media woes and the leggings overflow

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Yesterday was quite a lively social day for United.  They barred two women from boarding their flight after they were found to be in violation of United’s non-rev passenger policy – in comes #leggingsgate. (Non-revenue passengers (flying for free) include airline employees and their families, as well as buddy pass travelers and so on. Generally they travel standby.)  For a great timeline of what really happened, take a look at Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly’s post this morning.  My post will have a different swing here than most other posts regarding this incident.  I simply find it ridiculous that so much energy was spent by so many yesterday on this, when there are serious problems going on elsewhere.  I mean, this escalated quickly: leggings> barred> sexism> boycott> yikes!

Short and quick thoughts on this incident:

  • Was United within their rights to deny boarding to the two young women?  Absolutely.  United’s employees were simply following the dress code for non-rev passengers.
  • Were the young women in violation of United’s non-rev passenger dress code?  Yes.
  • Was Shannon Watts, who broke this incident on Twitter, right in doing so?  Shannon can do whatever she pleases, but she evidently didn’t have the facts straight.
  • Who is Shannon Watts?  In short, a gun violence activist and founder of Moms Demand Action – great initiative.  She just happens to be a United customer, or at least until yesterday.  Full bio here.  But this might help to take the tweeting with a grain of salt.  One thing is certain, this is a win for her regardless of the outcome.  All things considered, I wouldn’t doubt she’ll fly United again…alleged sexism and all.  Here’s an enlightening discussion between Shannon and Tiffany from OMAAT, who was later blocked by Shannon.
  • Is the dress-code, specifically for non-rev passengers, outdated?  Possibly, but that has nothing to do with the incident.  The dress code is today what the dress code is today, and thus, should be followed.  On that note, most airlines have very similar dress codes for their non-revs.
  • Does United enforce this dress code across the board?  Remember, we’re talking about non-rev passengers here.  So it’d be very difficult for others to notice whether or not this is enforced regularly, as not everyone is a non-rev or knows who’s a non-rev.  But, in general, airlines do try to enforce this rule and not just United.  See these non-UA flight attendants commenting on the issue to keep things in perspective.  Sarah Steegar Heather Poole

All that being said, I’ll leave the sexism topic for others to discuss.  I, however, do take issue with United’s social media practices.  Though I have often benefited from their social media customer service like Twitter, United doesn’t deliver in this respect on a regular basis.  I regularly monitor hashtags such as #unitedairlines, #delta, #americanairlines… and on an even day, United gets the most negative reactions from the public.  Is United really that much worse than Delta or American or Southwest?  Not from my experience – and I travel several times a month.  Why is it then that they get such a bad rap?  Although I consistently have good experiences with United, in retrospect, I do find that they have difficulty communicating with customers efficiently and intelligently via social media.  This is one big reason why in terms of reputation it would seem that almost nobody flies or wants to fly United if you considered only what social media says.

Yesterday was the perfect example of this.  The first response came from the Twitter team, of course.  They referred Mrs. Watts to United’s Contract of Carriage, which stipulates that United has the right to deny boarding for being barefoot or inappropriately clothed.  1) This was irrelevant in this case.  2) Because of the tweet’s totalitarian style response, it gave Twitter folk a reason to get emotional about it.  I cringed as I saw this unfold.  Nowadays, social media is so important to the image and reputation of a company, that even the job requisitions are specific like ‘Social Media Expert’, for example.  These ‘experts’ should be able on a consistent basis to foresee disasters such as yesterday’s.  They would’ve seen the potential of Mrs. Watts’ tweets, and taken the time to investigate prior to responding and do some damage control even before real damage happened.  Surely, the response would’ve been something more like what was published later at the United Hub.  That being said, United has made it a habit of being caught in quicksand on numerous occasions, both significant and insignificant.

For instance, I recently tweeted United asking for PQM earnings on an upcoming mileage run, because the earnings weren’t showing up yet in the app.  I included my MileagePlus account # and reservation #.   They replied with a link to the PQM earnings page.  That’s not what I asked for, and yet they thought it was the best answer ever!  I just rolled my eyes and went about my day.  Though this wasn’t all that important, I took note of it, and remembered it yesterday.  Similarly, other customers will remember little things like these and when something huge like yesterday comes along and therein the overflow..something’s gotta give and so goes all the hard work United has put in the last year to earn or keep the business of some and improve their reputation.

In conclusion, United has made significant improvements in the last year.  I’ve personally seen an improvement in customer service, they have considerably improved on-time performance, and they’re making headway in bettering the passenger experience in general, both in the air and on the ground.  Unfortunately, social media and the perception of the masses is still nowhere near where it needs to be.  United’s negative reputation comes largely because of years of turmoil and poor service, and it will take years of near impeccable performance to get over the hump.  Debacles like the one that happened yesterday need to be avoided, and that’s what the social media and PR teams are there for.  I hope in the way of training, coaching, or learning the hard way, United’s management can capitalize and improve their social media strategy and resources.  Otherwise, we’ll continue to see thriving hashtags such as #boycottunited and #unitedsucks.

Give me your thoughts