United Breaks Guitars - And People

United loses billions by its stultified bureaucratic handling of overbookings.

This week United Airlines gave us a sense of deja vu all over again.

Seven years ago, we were becalmed at an airport and one of my fellow sufferers said, "Have you heard 'United Breaks Guitars'?"

Having looked out airplane windows watched refugees from the World Wrestling Federation playing with my bags, I wasn't surprised.  If you go to YouTube and search for 'United Breaks Guitars,' you'll find a plethora of songs and articles on that theme. The oldest one spawned an entire genre of songs about United Airlines abusing passengers' luggage and the victim's year-long pursuit of a refund.

I hadn't heard it before, but the other passenger played it as we finally entered our airplane - not one flown by United.  The flight attendant told us that their management had encouraged them to watch the video so they would understand how damaging social media could be in an attempt to prevent such things from happening to their own airline.

The More Things Change....

As everybody knows by now, United Airlines recently oversold a flight and didn't offer enough money to persuade enough passengers to fly later.  Instead, the airline selected four passengers - who'd paid for their seats and were already bucked in them - and ordered them off.

Three passengers obeyed and left, but the fourth, Dr. David Dao, refused, even when airport security commanded him to exit.  So they dragged him off, inflicting a concussion, a broken nose, and a bloody face.  The flight arrived at its destination 2 hours late and shy four passengers, but in the meantime a passenger's Facebook video went viral.  United's stock price plummeted, and everyone is asking why the incident escalated so far.

The answer is quite simple - United is a very large company whose management has many layers.  Flight attendants are unionized, and the union contract is full of fine print which specifies just what the company can expect an employee to do or not to do.

What's more, as we pointed out some years back, large organizations with many, many employees develop procedures for handling almost anything.  Frontline employees are supposed to behave by the book; they are not supposed to think, because if they think, they may get the wrong answer and have to take the blame.

The way to promotion is not through demonstrating initiative, because anything an individual employee thinks of has probably been tried before and been shown not to work.  The path upward is through the most rigid adherence to the rules as laid down.  When worst comes to worst, even if something does go badly wrong, a line employee can't be fired if they can show that they scrupulously followed the rules.

Thus, employees who are enmeshed in a bureaucracy tend to go by the book and please their superiors at all times.  Conformity, not initiative, is the key to success.

This is the antithesis of the American dream, of course.  The Dream says that anyone with initiative who comes up with something new can expect to reap millions.  We think of this most often in the context of entrepreneurship, as Bill Gates with Microsoft and Steve Jobs with Apple, but there are countless smaller innovators whose ideas helped grow the small companies they worked for and who rode up with them.

The problem is that being enmeshed in a giant, unimaginative, unresponsive bureaucracy squeezes all the initiative and all the imagination out of employees.  They may be creative during their off hours, but creativity is essentially forbidden at work.

In United's case, the book apparently said never to bump anyone in first or business class, or a frequent flyer; instead, offer a certain amount of money to bribe people to voluntarily deplane.  Unfortuantely, it also specifies limits of what can be offered to persuade people to give up their seats.  If that isn't enough, the book says to randomly pick unimportant peasants who fly only occasionally or bought the cheapest tickets and give them the boot.  The flight attendants aren't at fault, they followed the book.

The problem, of course, was the limited inducement.  Who wants a voucher for more travel on United when you've just been left stranded in a darkened airport?

Actually, lots of people would, if the offer was big enough.  If they'd offered a million dollars per, or even a million dollars' worth of free flights, they'd have emptied the plane in a heart beat.  There is a price; all they had to do was meet it.  Other airlines offer gift cards or actual cash as opposed to cheesy vouchers, but the point is the same: if United had tried hard enough to make it worth someone's while, someone would have taken them up on their offer.  But the book didn't allow it.

For that matter, the book absolutely forbade imaginative solutions.  Why didn't the station manager simply fire up the Uber app for a car to drive the four employees to where they needed to be next morning?  It surely would have cost less than $800; there'd be a happy Uber driver and a planeload of not-furious passengers.  But no, the United policy manual or the union contract forbids such out-of-the-box thinking, even something so obviously beneficial to all concerned.

Passengers may not realize it, but they're also slaves to the book.  The Wall Street Journal reports that when you click the "I Agree" box when buying a United ticket on-line, you've agreed to 46 pages of finely-honed legalese which asserts that when anything goes wrong, it's all your fault, and if things go right, you've been fortunate and should count your blessings.  It doesn't say that, of course, but that's what it means when the rubber meets the road.  That's why United was entirely within their legal rights to demand that Dr. Dao vacate the seat he'd paid for, and was also obeying the law in calling the cops on him when he refused to comply.

As a result of these perfectly legal, perfectly compliant book-based actions, United's stockholders lost billions of dollars.

The viral power of social media has increased since "United Breaks Guitars" was published, and the ante has now been upped: martial arts instructors are teaching "Top tips for fighting off United Airlines' hired goons" for example, which promise to make air travel even more exciting.

There Is Another Way

Although being enmeshed in a bureaucracy generally kills creativity, some bureaucracies encourage employees to show imagination.  For example, as the lawsuits against United Arlines multiplied like Kudzu, someone entered a fake complaint against Southwest Airlines.

In the United case, it's arguable that the airline's ham-handed and weaselly response to the video made the matter even worse.  Southwest knows that this can happen and has trained their complaint handlers how to defuse tense situations with humor.  As King Solomon put it, "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger."  (Proverbs 15:1)

According to this article, one of them handled the fake complaint with perfect aplomb, something United, with all its billions, seems incapable of doing.

Southwest's management, like United, has built a rule-based organizational structure which is necessarily bureaucratic because there's no way to measure the profit impact of, say, airplane maintenance.  But at the same time, they have managed to give employees enough leeway to handle tense situations without escalation.  That is plainly hard to do, as no other major US airline comes close, despite having spent 40 years watching Southwest do it.

Building a responsive, reasonable, productive bureaucracy is very hard. That's why we're so opposed to government regulation - bureaucracy is the only tool the government has, and government employees go by the book.

No matter what.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

I haven't seen the union contract, of course, but I think you're wrong about the Uber solution. I suspect that the union contract has limits on how far employees have to travel by car versus air so they couldn't do that.

April 13, 2017 11:04 PM

Agree that the bureaucratic mind can get in the way of common sense. But I think the airlines need to level with people. If they want the absolute cheapest tickets, it comes with strings. Feel free to go on line and get that " deal" . But be aware that , when push comes to shove, you will be the first to be tossed off the plane. Airlines would be smart to institute a " dump proof fare" . You won't get dumped off the flight if you pay at least this much. You can pay less with a super duper fare, but there might be consequences.
Hotels have something similar . If you want the cheapest room, you can't cancel. If you want the right to cancel 24 hours before you are suppose to show up, you pay more. Seems to work.

April 13, 2017 11:05 PM

My late father, a three-star admiral, lamented years ago of "the clerking of America." More and more extensive guidelines reduced employees' abilities to think for themselves. Most of us encounter these limitations daily. It takes a stubborn individual to stand up for common sense and basic courtesy. My dear husband is one such champion.

April 13, 2017 11:09 PM

According to the NYT quoting his lawyer, the person dragged off the flight suffered a broken nose, sustained a concussion, lost two teeth and injured his sinuses.


April 14, 2017 11:59 AM

They're doing it again:


April 15, 2017 8:51 PM

They're doing it again:


April 15, 2017 8:51 PM

As even United agreed that the passenger had paid for his seat, and had broken no laws and posed no safety issues, this was a commercial dispute: the passenger had purchased a service that United refused to deliver.

On what basis can the police be involved? By what authority? The fact that United had a standing policy of calling them, and that they had a standing policy of responding, is a far bigger problem that both should be required to answer, than this specific case, bad though it was.

May 17, 2017 4:05 PM

@Edwardo The terms and "conditions of carriage" to which the doctor agreed when he bought the ticket are many pages of finely-honed legalese. It gives them the right to throw him off the plane for any reason or for no reason. He agreed to it.

Federal law makes it a federal crime to disobey a member of the flight crew, which he did. It's good for jail time.

These are mere facts, I realize, but facts they are.

May 17, 2017 11:18 PM
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