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Where Was the Pilot On That United Airlines Flight?

April 11, 2017, 4:00 PM UTC

I’m as horrified as everyone else watching that video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged from his seat, knocked down and bloodied, to make room for a crew member. I’m also stunned, as someone who studies strategy, culture, and customer service, at what an epic failure this whole episode was, and continues to be. Industry experts have criticized outdated overbooking strategies. Policy experts have criticized laws and regulations that make such evictions legal. Everyone has criticized the public-relations response.

Above all, though, the United Airlines fiasco represents a failure of leadership up, down, and across the organization. This incident will be scrutinized for years as a case study in what can happen when leaders at every level don’t do their jobs; don’t ask obvious questions; and otherwise stand by as “policies and procedures” trump common sense and human decency. As I try to make sense of this nonsensical episode, I have serious questions for five different kinds of leaders at United Airlines.

Where was the pilot?

All of us frequent flyers have a clear sense that once we board a plane, the pilot is in charge. If there’s a question about safety, or security, or just about anything else, it’s the pilot who makes the final call. So my question is: is the pilot of this flight proud of how things went? Could he or she not have left the cockpit; worked things out with the gate agents; had a few one-on-ones with passengers, and somehow figured out how to make sure this flight did not become a fight club? Pilots love to exude an air of authority and command. Why didn’t this pilot actually show some authority and use some common sense in his or her command of the flight? And if the pilot chose to okay the response, what does that say about his or her judgment in a turbulent situation?

Where was the gate agent?

What makes this whole incident especially galling is that four paying customers, all of whom were already seated, got kicked off the flight to make way for four crew members who had to get from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, so they could work a flight the next day. That’s a pretty easy problem to avoid. Here’s the first thing I did when I saw the video. I went to Google maps and found out how long the drive was between the airports in Chicago and Louisville. The answer—less than five hours! Why couldn’t the gate agent suggest that these four crew members rent a van; drive the five hours, and let United’s paying customers go on their way? Are we, as in-the-trenches leaders, so lacking in basic problem-solving skills, so unable to improvise, that we can’t figure out a cheap and easy way to avoid one of the great PR disasters in recent history?

I know the ready-made excuses—policies, procedures, approvals—but they don’t fly, at least for me. Part of being a good colleague and an effective grassroots leader is using common sense and a little bit of creativity, even if you have to work around the system. Remember the saying, ‘it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.’

Where were the passengers?

One question I asked myself upon seeing he video was, ‘what would I have done had I been on the flight?’ I’d like to think I would have done more than sit by and take a video. Indeed, I believe this incident was a failure of leadership by the passengers as well. Why didn’t everyone walk off the plane to protest this horrible treatment? Why didn’t passengers demand to hear from the pilot and get an official explanation? Why was there no mild form of protest—chants of “Let him fly, let him fly”—to express outrage at what was taking place.

I don’t expect airline passengers to become political activists, but the sight of a 69-year-old doctor David Dao being dragged from a flight while his fellow human beings moan, groan, and take videos does not reflect the best of the human spirit. Memo to passengers: Don’t just sit there, do something!

Where was the CEO?

Well, we know where the CEO was … crafting some of the most tin-eared explanations and public statements in memory. If CEO Oscar Munoz’s goal was to make a disastrous situation even worse, well, he gets credit as a leader for succeeding at that. His initial statement, in which he could barely muster an apology for the episode, was justifiably ridiculed for its absurd euphemisms and jargon. His subsequent letter to employees, in which he discussed the “lessons we can learn from this experience,” showed that he had learned no lessons whatsoever. For a guy who makes nearly $7 million a year, and who was recently named “U.S. Communicator of the Year” by PR Week, it’s hard to imagine a worse public response from a CEO to a situation that has so thoroughly tarnished the brand.

Where is the Board of Directors?

How United’s board responds to this disastrous situation will be a make-or-break test of its character. Will the Board insist that this incident become a teachable moment for the entire organization, and lead to major initiatives to address the leadership failures I’ve described? Will it sanction Munoz for his abysmal public responses, dock his pay, and otherwise “re-accommodate” him in the role of CEO? This is the final leadership test that United will either pass or fail in connection with this episode. Based on events thus far, I am not optimistic.

William C. Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of the book, Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways.