I awoke this morning to find an email (which had come in around midnight) sitting in my inbox from Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines. I was no doubt on the distribution list because my Marriott Rewards program previously signed a deal with United’s mileage program, essentially signing all of us up for it. (As an aside, the Marriott Rewards program is awesome if you’ve never checked into it.) The essence of it was what was covered in the announcement they sent out to the media yesterday, but Munoz definitely seemed to be trying to personalize the issue a bit and convince potentially angry customers to come back to the fold.

It starts with another lengthy, abject and unqualified apology for the incident where the passenger was beaten down and dragged off the plane. Fair enough. You’re sorry. We get it. He then goes on to describe this as a “turning point” in their relationship with passengers and begins laying out some changes. It starts with this.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

That sounds pretty good, but it does come with some caveats. Just because they won’t ask “law enforcement” to remove customers it doesn’t mean that their own security people couldn’t in case of an “emergency.” Not “requiring” anyone to give up their seat once boarded is a no brainer which we covered here before… it just means that they will take care to turn you away at the gate before you can get on the plane. And what qualifies as “safety or security” situations is left entirely up to United.

Next, Munoz covers the reboot of incentives for those who run into booking problems.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark.

We already knew about the higher limits for what they will offer you to take a later flight. It’s a good start if we have to live with overbooking and should eliminate the problem they ran into with Dr. Dao since that kind of cash will almost always find a taker willing to fly the next day. But what they’re not doing is eliminating the problem of overbooking and failing to build deadhead seats for employees into the business model in advance. In their media announcement they said they would “reduce” overbooking, but who the heck knows what that means. It’s worth noting that Southwest Airlines took the full measure step this week of ending overbooking and adjusting their prices to compensate for it.

I will admit that the $1,500, no questions asked, lost baggage policy is a nice touch. For most of us who may have little in our checked bags beyond a couple changes of jeans and some toiletries, that should ease tensions. (Unless you can afford to spend thousands on your luggage, off course.)

The final part of the letter I wanted to touch on is the most gauzy and vacuous. It has to do with United’s new sense of “social responsibility.” (Emphasis added)

I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

I’m just taking a shot in the dark here, but allow me to guess what this means. It has nothing to do with the actual service you receive or how the flights operate. You’ll be seeing a new ad campaign stressing how the airline is “sensitive” to the needs of the transgender community, women, minorities, religions and all the rest. But you know what none of this shiny new image being advertised by Munoz deals with? The actual quality of service. Where is the apology for continually making the seats smaller and less comfortable, the vanishing leg room and the endless fees for everything from your first checked bag to an oxygen mask which is guaranteed to work? (Okay… that last one was hyperbole, but you get the point.) Do they plan to actually make air travel less miserable in the future? Munoz doesn’t say.

Since we have no other choices in most cases when it comes to air travel (because a few companies essentially have a monopoly and don’t have to care about customer service or competitive pricing) I’ll be waiting to see how this plays out. But for the time being, let’s just say I’m not getting my hopes up. I’m including the entire letter I received below just so you can be sure I didn’t take anything out of context.

Dear Mr Shaw,

Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.
Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?

It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.

Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.

That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.

We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.

We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.

While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, “I fly United.”

Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.

We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.

With Great Gratitude,

Oscar Munoz
CEO
United Airlines