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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz will trust his instincts if he ever must apologize for another major customer relations fiasco, he said Monday during a session at IATA’s General Meeting in Cancun, an annual gathering for industry insiders.
“We all have a sense of our internal instincts when we see something or when we feel something or when we hear something,” he said during a CEO panel discussion. “In a crisis of that magnitude, evolving that quickly, you tend to learn and talk to too many people.”
Munoz waited two days to issue a sincere apology after an early April incident in Chicago, when security officers violently removed a customer from a United Express plane. That was partly because Munoz said he had been focused on learning what happened, but the other three CEOs on the panel — Rickard Gustafson of SAS, Peter Bellew of Malaysia Airlines and Enrique Beltranena of Mexico’s Volaris— all agreed that today’s media cycle forces companies to respond and apologize sooner than ever.
“I think you have 15 minutes or less to say sorry,” Bellew said. “That’s the pressure you’re under now. It’s horrendous.”
Bellew said during a May 31 incident, when an unruly passenger flying from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur tried to rush the cockpit and threatened other passengers early in the flight, Malaysia sent a statement to media before the aircraft landed back in Melbourne. It had no choice, he said, because passengers started streaming content to Facebook Live when the plane dropped below 4,000 feet.
Its statement, issued 14 minutes after executives learned from the pilots what was happening, included an apology to customers.
“You can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Bellew said. “The speed and the proliferation of social media will overtake you. You have to take control of the story.”
Volaris’ Beltranena said his airline put together a new crisis response plan after the United incident. Now, for a similar incident, he said he would react within 10 minutes. “Believe me, I was not prepared to react the day that happened compared to the way I am prepared today,” he said.
Bellew said by using internal messaging systems to communicate, airline executives should know enough about what happened to respond intelligently. But even if they don’t, they should still share something with the public within 10 or 15 minutes, SAS’ Gustafson said.
“You need to have some standard messages prepared,” he said. “You have a very short time to react. The first thing you can do is put out a more generic message. Then you can build on that. … And you need to have people responding ASAP on social media, because that’s where the whole thing is going to explode.”
Interestingly, Munoz said he disagreed with the 15-minute rule. He noted that United’s incident happened on a Sunday night at 9 p.m. in Chicago, and while it made local news that night in Louisville, it didn’t go viral until the next day.
“I think you have more time than you think to respond to this, and to respond correctly,” Munoz said said. “I think it’s important… that if you know the facts and you can respond immediately, do so immediately. But if you don’t, and time has already expired, then you need to take your time.”
In the Chicago case, Munoz said he did not take enough time to craft a true apology. The first statement sent under his name blamed the customer for the bloody airport incident, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Had Munoz waited and thought about it, he might have instead issued the apology he sent two days later, when he said the airline took full responsibility.
“The many different folks advising me from all different departments and areas was wide and varied, but around it was the sense of requirement — you need to do this now,” he said. “I think if I had just waited for an ‘X’ amount of time, I think my initial response with my name on it would have been different.”