November 20th 2018
Customer Experience 
4 min read

United Airlines PR Nightmare (Customer Experience Study Case)

Welcome to the 1st post of our 10-post series on the use of UX and CX in business. If you missed our introduction to User Experience and Customer Experience, make sure to check them out. You’ll have a better understanding of the concepts we’ll be looking at throughout the series.


A Quick Review

In any case, here’s a refresher of the terms we’ll be discussing.

User Experience, also known as UX, the quality of experience a person has with a specific product. A positive UX results when the goals of the user and the organization that created the product are met.

Customer Experience, also known as CX, is a measurement of how a customer feels about a company overall. It includes the emotional, physical, and psychological connection that the consumer has with the brand. Ideally it is at the core of everything a company does.


Who is United?

United (also known as United Airlines) is an American airline with 78 domestic flight offerings and 108 international destinations in 73 countries. They are the third largest airline in the world when measured by revenue. 

For as big and profitable as United Airlines is, they’ve had some hiccups with their customer experience. Maybe you’re familiar with the video that went viral after a songwriter’s $3,500 Taylor guitar was broken on a United flight. This case is one of several poor customer experiences that has been in the public eye over the course of the past couple of years.

For several years, United’s customer satisfaction has been on the decline. In 2018 their Customer Satisfaction score “fell 2 points to 73 on the report’s 0-100 scale.”

Their frequent appearance in the press with poor customer experience spurs the question, how do they allow these cases to get so out of hand when they can be amended early on? After all, United is a large, international company not some Start-Up in a garage.


The songwriter & the Guitar

Several years ago, when singer-songwriter Dave Carrol flew United Airlines and his guitar was damaged he reached out to the company. What he wanted from them was very simple: an admittance of liability and compensation for damages.

After a year of appeals to United, his band (Sons of Maxwell) wrote the song, “United Breaks Guitars.” They became a YouTube sensation and the song became the biggest hit of the band’s career, reaching #1 in the iTunes store for the single.


United Break Guitars

The song tells the story of his year-long attempt to reconcile his loss with the company. Shortly after the release of the instant hit he had almost 4 million views on YouTube and the story was covered by several major news outlets. 

When the catchy tune went live and became a viral hit, this was the turning point for United. Suddenly they realized that Dave’s claim wasn’t going anywhere. Now they had a bigger problem – viral bad publicity.

Although the case occurred in 2009, it’s an incredible testament to the power of social media and the connectivity of users. The video became a nightmare for United, with song requests from Son of Maxwell fans to hear the song at concerts – further spreading the bad press.


Damage to United

United customers have time and time again met frustrations with the airline. Whether they’ve had issues with delays, the loss of baggage, damage to a guitar, etc. this negatively impacts customer experience.

Ultimately, they lost $180 million in stock that could have been prevented. The millions the company lost could have been used to implement better customer service programs, trainings, and communication to prevent such instances from happening in the future.


Authentic Customer Interaction

Frequently when United has tried to connect with their customers it’s been lacking in feeling for customers. The most recent example is in their Olympic TV ad, which has proven yet again to be unrelatable to their customer base. 

“Every so often [United] will run an advertisement about how they take care of Olympic athlete. Time and time again the [customer] sees the athletes getting this great treatment and it doesn’t resonate with them,” explains Jared Spool in his lecture at USI.

The reason this advertising strategy proves to be unresponsive every time is simple. “The customer sees Olympic Athlete receiving excellent treatment, but when they fly with the airline they don’t receive this level of treatment,” Spools continued. “It isn’t authentic.”


Looking Forward

With more and more budget airlines popping up in the United States will United be able to remain relevant? The company’s numerous appearances in the press, and their advertising strategy, suggests that they need a cultural change to continue to resonate with their customers. 

However, this is only one part of the equation. When customers book with a budget airline their general expectation is also much lower than a traditional airline, such as United. It’s through this expectation that consumers aren’t met with frustration.

United Airlines needs to make a change in their company culture in order to remain competitive. Their premium price provides a basic guarantee to customers, the amenities that come with a pleasant flight.


Summing it up…

Achieving a positive customer experience is harder than it looks and more complicated than you think. While some companies, such as Apple, provide (what appears to be) a perfect customer experience it’s an incredibly complicated calculation. Businesses are constantly trying to provide a balance of meeting basic expectations and creating customer delight. 

United, as seen in their case with the guitar, needs to look at their company and improve the core issues they are facing. The airline’s success will depend on how they are able to resonate with their customers, solve their complaints, find solutions to their frustrations, and meet basic customer expectations for a premium airline.

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