United CEO Oscar Munoz gets grilled about employee policies

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, along with executives some other major airlines and an aviation consultant from the Consumers Union, was grilled before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today in a much-anticipated, hours-long session, following the violent dragging of Dr. David Dao off a United flight in April.

Munoz has come under fire for the way he reacted initially, only to change his tone in later responses. For instance, in an early email to employees, Munoz reportedly called Dao “disruptive and belligerent,” and praised employees for how they handled it, and although he said there were takeaways for United, he reportedly said, “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

During the session, Munoz also talked about new company policy changes as a result of the event,  (all 10 of which were outlined in a statement last week) including giving people who volunteer to give up their seats up to $10,000, and not requiring seated passengers to leave “involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.”

Today’s hearing touched on a wide range of topics, but shed light on the evolving nature of Munoz’s reactions to the incident (which may have been overthinking) and spoke to the struggle between employees’ individual judgment and company policy.

Here are some of the highlights.

Munoz directly addressed his response

Calling the situation “a serious breach of public trust,” Munoz later commented on his early reaction.

“…Further, I’m personally sorry for the fact that my immediate response and the response of our airline was inadequate at the moment. No customer, no individual should ever be treated the way Mr. Dao was— ever, and we understand that. For the last three weeks, I’ve spent literally every single day thinking about how we got to this point. What chain of events culminates in the injury of a customer and the loss of trust of so many more…” Munoz said.

The fact that a customer was hurt could continue to be a sore spot for the company going forward, and might make consumers think twice about flying with United.

Rep. Lloyd Smucker later brought up the fact that Munoz ‘s initial reaction, only to change his approach in later responses.

“…It was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time…” Munoz said.

United identified what went wrong: employees not empowered

Munoz said that the company has boiled the incident down to “four main failures” that are detailed in a report: the fact that United “called on law enforcement when safety or security did not exist,” that the company “rebooked crew at the very last minute,” and that the company “didn’t offer enough compensation or enough incentivized…or any options for those customers to give up a seat”…which all led up to the final point.

In the last of the “four main failures,” Munoz addressed employees’ conflict between using their individual judgment versus company policy head-on.

“…Perhaps, the largest failure— our employees did not have the authority to do what was right or to use, frankly, their common sense, as some of you outlined. And in that moment, for our customers and our company, we failed,” Munoz continued.

This speaks to the idea that the airline industry has been deemed militaristic — the rigidity of the industry’s policies doesn’t necessarily allow for individual employees to make ethical choices in extreme situations.

After owning the situation as the CEO, Munoz called attention to what this moment in time represents for both employees and customers, saying that “…this has to be a turning point for the 87,000 people and professionals here at United. And it is my mission to make sure that we make the changes needed to provide our customers with the highest levels of service…but also, as some of you mentioned, a deeper sense of respect and trust and dignity…”

Common sense

While Munoz said that employees weren’t able to use their common sense in today’s hearing, he’s spoken about this topic before. After the incident, he reportedly told ABC’s Good Morning America in an interview, “We have not provided our frontline supervisors and managers and individuals with the proper procedures that would allow them to use their common sense.”

But he praised workers for having it— he also said in the same interview that “They all have an incredible amount of common sense, and this issue could have been solved by that,” before taking responsibility for coming up with a solution.

Customers vs. employees

At the hearing, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty touched on a how United created a conflict between the interests of the crew and the interests of passengers.

“…You need to move your crews, we all get that. But it should never be at the expense of a paying customer ever, and that’s gonna be the first thing on a bill I’m signing onto, because that is the ultimate indication that you have not managed your system well, and you are asking customers to pay for your failure to manage…” she said.

The future of the airline industry could depend on measures major airlines take to enhance the experiences of both passengers and flight crews.