What Churches Can Learn From the United Airlines Debacle

United Airlines has lost $1.4 billion, been the subject of countless memes and outrage on the social media after a video of a forcible removal of 69-year-old David Dao went viral. United CEO Oscar Munoz initially applauded his staff’s handling of the ‘belligerent’ passenger and then reversed his position to an apology to the passenger after the company lost $250 million.

The airline was overbooked and offered 800 sky miles to passengers who would voluntarily give up their seat for four United Airlines crew members who had to get to Louisville, KY. Dr. Dao considered giving up his seat until he learned that the earliest he could get on another flight would be the next day. He told airline staff that he needed to get back to work. You would have thought the airline staff would have just picked another willing passenger or increased the incentive.

Instead, airline staff called airport security who dragged Dr. Dao off the plane. Dr. Dao’s nose was broken and he was hospitalized after the incident. United CEO initially said Dr. Dao was belligerent and out of control. Really? Would you get belligerent and out of control Mr. Munoz if you were forced to get off the plane when you paid for the ticket and went through the security procedures?

Mr. Munoz and his staff at United Airlines failed to see that their system or policy created their problem. The message sent to customers is: #1 Our employees are more important than you; #2 Your plans, your health condition and commitments don’t matter to us. In fact, you don’t matter to us because we have a policy we need to adhere to. #3 Our policy is a priority, not the customer.

Here are some lessons churches can learn from this crisis that erupted within hours.

Don’t call the person the problem. Demonizing customers as being belligerent when your system created the rebellion is a common tactic for clueless people in authority. Stock prices drop and everyone else can see that your system or structure is wrong but you continue to justify the policy by blaming the customer. I’ve seen this scenario play out over 20 years of being in different churches where attendance spirals.

In one church that I attended, over half of the members left in one year. Some of them left for legitimate reasons such as moving to another city for a better job. But I soon learned why their was a massive exodus. The church was anti-women working outside of the home which mystified me because one of my best girlfriends had a very thriving home-based business.

I was made to feel like their was something wrong with me because I worked outside of the home. In face one of the leaders that I asked for help with a troubled niece told her that I was a bad parent because I worked outside of the home. That piece of advice for a troubled teen just made things worse for us.

The church was hemorrhaging members because of this tactic of saying the member is the problem instead of trying to help them.

Say your sorry. United Airlines CEO Dan Munoz said he was sorry after the company lost $250 million and the social media outrage that sparked disapproval from President Donald Trump, and a host of government officials and high-profile celebrities. The apology is suspect and prevailing public opinion speculates that he apologized after being caught. An aviation lawyer representing Dr. Dao says he wasn’t impressed by the apology. “I thought it was staged,” Thomas Demetrio said at a press conference.

Apparently most people think it was staged as well. If Munoz would have apologized to Dr. Dao in the beginning instead of calling him belligerent, the scenario would have been much different. Munoz chose to protect a broken system instead of reaching out to someone who was broken by it.

If your system created the problem, fix it. Dr. Dao was kicked off because of an industrywide practice of ‘overbooking.’ Common sense dictates you would let Dr. Dao stay on the plane and pick a willing passenger instead of forcing Dr. Dao off the plane. I understand that overbooking system benefits consumers. That message of how overbooking benefits consumers didn’t play into this because of the inhumane application of this practice in Dr. Dao’s situation. United Airlines legastically adhered to this practice instead of executing it with kindness and humanity.

Now that the video of Dr. Dao being dragged off the plane has generated public outrage, the U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating the incident. This incident is forcing the travel industry to re-examine this practice. I hope they listen to their customers and fix it.

The church hemorrhaging members shut down and was absorbed into a larger church which was a smart move. The pastors and I have reconciled since then and we are friends today. I respect them for their honest assessment that the church needed to be absorbed into another thriving ministry. They also apologized to me right after those incidents.

Sometimes you need to tweak your system or shut it down if it is not producing good fruit. Churches can learn so much from the United Airlines fiasco. The bottom line is to treat people with kindness, humility, love and mercy. The system should not dictate how you treat someone but your faith and value of people should be the standard. When your system is flawed, fix it. Don’t blame the people, fix the system.

Other excellent posts I recommend for this issue:

Why United’s PR Disaster Didn’t Fly by Michael Hyatt

United Airlines and the Firestorm of Social Media by Phil Cooke

One thought on “What Churches Can Learn From the United Airlines Debacle

  1. Why do churches–in a United Airlines manner–castigate the individual instead of opting for a reconciliatory approach? Because churches these days have defaulted into a bureaucratically run organization (whether it’s Baptist or AG). They have strayed from their biblical identity as an organic entity rooted in Christ. In the case of the former, there’s a system to be maintained and a machine to be run. Thus, the individuals, aka. the nuts and bolts, are expendable if they become a detriment to the machine. In the case of the latter, the individuals are all equally vital to the collective health of the larger body, which makes no expendable.

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