United Airlines Sends Customers an Odd Email

Thom Weidlich 03.21.24


United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby made a gutsy move this week: He sent an email to customers acknowledging the raft of safety incidents the company has had recently and promising it was working to do better. The missive is an interesting idea, but its execution was disappointing.

The email was unusual enough to attract pretty wide coverage, including from CNBC, CNN, the BBC and People. It was odd because companies usually respond to individual crises as they arise; they don’t usually admit, “Wow, we’re really having a bad run here.” Kirby refers to the incidents as “unrelated.”

There’s no question they’re having a reputational effect. People are noticing. We’re willing to bet the situation has some refusing to fly. Kirby’s action may be seen as more desperate than daring.

Lost Tire

The email itself is peculiar in that it never names the individual occurrences. Some examples: An airplane in Houston ran off the taxiway into the grass. Another in San Francisco lost a tire. Just last Friday, a United flight landed in Oregon with a missing panel from under the fuselage. A New York Times headline: “8 Incidents in 2 Weeks: What’s Going on With United’s Planes?”

An expert the NYT quoted pointed out the unusualness of the attention being paid. “Some of these issues are things that happen occasionally, but often don’t get reported in media,” said Robert Sumwalt, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (he added that none was acceptable).

What makes the execution weak is that the 269-word (not including salutation and valediction) email is written in bland corporate speak. Kirby, who’s been CEO since 2020, starts by laying out the safety theme, but, again, blandly.

‘Highest Priority’

“Of all the things that make me proud of our team at United Airlines, I’m most proud of the culture we’ve built around the safety of our employees and our customers,” he writes. “Safety is our highest priority and is at the center of everything we do.”

It’s another example of a company refusing to humanize its statements (a problem we’ve pointed out before). Doesn’t Kirby have visceral feelings about safety? Couldn’t he be more forthright about how the problems are eroding trust in the company?

He goes on to say that United is focused on the incidents: “Our team is reviewing the details of each case to understand what happened and using those insights to inform our safety training and procedures across all employee groups.” He mentions that some measures, such as an extra day of training for pilots, have already been in the works.

‘Right Lessons’

Says Kirby: “I’m confident that we’ll learn the right lessons from these recent incidents and continue to run an operation that puts safety first and makes our employees and customers proud.”

Communicators will want to think about whether to take such an approach — to not just speak out on individual crises, but to admit the company is going through a rough patch. It may make sense if the series of events is adding up to a crisis in its own right. But do consider using more human language.

Photo Credit: United Airlines

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe. 

Related:Once Again, Boeing Confronts a Crisis