In the aftermath of the United Airlines fiasco this week, Delta has authorised staff to offer far more generous compensation when their flights are overbooked.

The internal memo with the new compensations policy, leaked to the press, may have bought Delta some positive PR in the short term, but it could backfire for all airlines in the long term.

That’s because overbooking and the established rules for compensation are not the problem. Focusing on these things as the root cause of the United Airlines crisis may only make the problem worse.

I get it. United Airlines handled the situation very poorly, both from an operations and from a PR perspective. The United brand took such a huge hit in the public forum and the market, that the stink of this incident threatens to stick to all airlines in the US and around the world.

Overbooking is an operational necessity, which generally works out well for all involved, including passengers who would want the seats that would otherwise go empty when passengers fail to show up in time for their flights.

The process of offering passengers compensation to take an alternate flight when the flight is overbooked is fine. It wasn’t broken. There was no need to fix it.

Empowering employees to offer higher amounts when needed is good, but compensation at these levels, many multiples the airfare charged to fly Economy on most routes around the world, is a double edged-sword.

One of the reasons that people hesitate to take the compensation in instances of overbooking is that they want to see whether the compensation will be sufficient to pay-back the inconvenience of waiting. That’s reasonable. The process then becomes a game of patience, with airlines and passengers waiting to see who will blink first.

If passengers suspect a compensation offer of $400 may rise to $9,000, if they only wait long enough, then the process of finding someone to give up their seat will only be delayed.

And the terrible treatment of Dr Dao did not result from overbooking. It resulted from an industry culture which at different stages can be dehumanising, even for those flying on the priciest tickets. 

The fault on United’s part was to prioritise finding seats for staff AFTER passengers were already seated, and bringing the police on the aircraft to enforce the de-planing when Dr Dao refused to give up his seat.

There are so many if’s in this scenario. If the staff in question had arrived at the airport at a reasonable time… If they had been allocated seats prior to boarding passengers…If the staff had been transported by other means…If the staff had communicated the seats situation better to passengers onboard…If Dr Dao had just agreed..if, if, if, if…

If United staff had been empowered to offer a higher amount to tempt passengers to give up their seat, this might have been avoided too but no one was horrified by the inadequate amount of money offered. They were horrified by this:

The real issue is that United handled this incident very badly, not just initially but long after. The airline dug its heels in and refused to apologise when it was so obvious that the way Dr Dao was manhandled by police was terrible and inhuman.

The flaw lies somewhere in the United Airlines culture, which doesn’t foster empathy, which doesn’t empower staff to use their good common sense, which seems to place a lesser value on customers than on procedures.

The lessons airlines should take away from this—in the U.S. and elsewhere—is that it’s really important to encourage a customer-first mindset. It’s critical to value people and show empathy. Companies must own up immediately when they have handled a situation badly, and make amends in a very public way.

There is a building resentment against the air travel process in the public which can only be addressed by ensuring greater efficiencies, eliminating the pain-points of the journey, and building service-oriented business models.

You cannot buy goodwill. You have to earn it.

Therefore, promising to offer a big bounty isn’t going to fix the problem. It may aggravate it.

All airlines should look to their people. They should look at their corporate culture very carefully.

Aviation will only get more difficult in the coming years, as passenger numbers rise, the threat of terror attacks continues to push a security mindset, and governments issue ever-changing policies which restrict movement and complicate the travel process.

Passengers need empathy and care in these trying times more than they need money.

They need for airlines and airports to create something better which can make up for the inevitable points of friction in the air travel process.

It starts with hiring, training, and promoting people who genuinely like people.

Of all the mocking mottos that arose during the United backlash this week, one struck close to the bone: “We put the ‘hospital’ in ‘hospitality.’”

This is exactly what is wrong. Airlines are not just means of transport. They are in the hospitality business and they need to develop their hospitality brands.

That cannot include a callous corporate culture. You cannot accomplish it by focusing on money instead of focusing on value.

Airlines can and must become quality hospitality brands without going broke, just as hotels do.

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