What Your Business Can Learn From The United Airlines Disaster

You’ve seen the video by now I’m sure—the one of the beaten and bloodied passenger being dragged from the seat of a United Airlines flight.

As a fellow business owner, I’m sure you can agree that there are PR nightmares (see Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad), and then there are full-on PR meltdowns! The United Airlines debacle was definitely the latter—and more specifically, the type that results in huge losses, endless streams of sarcastic memes, and incidents that spread like wildfire online and severely harm your business.

As I watched this gigantic disaster unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of pre-mortem business analysis United Airlines had in place. After all, I’m sure they didn’t anticipate this sort of result!

united airlines disaster

Pre-Mortem Business Analysis

Before any company enacts a new policy or plan, they should always begin by asking themselves one question, “What is the worst thing that could happen?”

This is essentially the gist of an old technique called Pre-Mortem Analysis (PMA), a method developed by cognitive psychologist Dr Gary Klein to help businesses test out new strategies and identify possible vulnerabilities in their planning. At its core, PMA helps companies to evaluate potential unintended consequences of new procedures and/or policies.

When it comes to United Airlines, their policy is to fly staff to where they need to go, on their own airline. However, problems occur when planes are overbooked and they have to remove passengers from seats they’ve rightfully paid for. Usually, an airline would solve this issue by incentivising people to move (usually by refunding the person and paying for their inconvenience). However, if a passenger refuses to give up their seat despite the incentives…well, this is clearly a scenario United had not planned for! As a result, the airline company is now facing their worst ever PR disaster, and likely millions in lost revenue and lawsuits.

So How Can You Avoid A Similar Disaster?

When putting into place a Pre-Mortem Analysis, consider the following:

  1. Assemble members of your staff who were not involved in developing your new policy/product/procedure and make sure they fully understand what is involved.
  2. Encourage staff to think of all the things that could lead to disaster (let them be creative in their scenarios) and then identify the most probable of these scenarios. Work backwards to pinpoint all the events that have led to this (remember, the devil is in the detail).
  3. Lastly, in light of this investigation, either re-evaluate your procedures or develop contingency plans to ensure these worst case scenarios never become a reality.

Despite what you may think, the chain of events leading to Dr Dao being violently ejected from United Airlines was not the result of employees forgetting procedure—rather, it’s unlikely anyone at United ever anticipated a chain of events such as this!

If only they’d conducted a more comprehensive PMA then there would likely have been less room for surprise and a better contingency plan—saving them millions of dollars (and Dr Dao’s teeth).