Managing the Unexpected: United Airlines

Image source:

By Elle Bausch


In recent months, the airline industry has weathered a storm of bad press. United Airlines in particular has been at the center of a social media nightmare. Everyone has seen the videos of security forcibly removing a passenger from their airplane (If you haven’t).

In IMC 457, Managing Integration, using the five principles of high reliability organizations (HROs) from Managing the Unexpected, we took a look at ways United could have prevented the incident and the bad press that followed. The five principles being preoccupation with failure, resistance to simplification, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience and deference to expertise. Focusing on these five principles helps an organization become an HRO and maintain reliability of service even when an unexpected event occurs.


Image source:

HRO Principle #1

Preoccupation with failure, the first principle of anticipation, is the idea that small failures often give clues to larger problems within an organization and that organizations should be vigilant about noticing these small failures to prevent potential bigger ones. Now, this doesn’t mean that every time someone’s luggage is misplaced the entire company needs to stop what they are doing. But just days before the overbooking situation, a passenger was told she couldn’t board a United airplane because her leggings weren’t proper travel attire. Although this wasn’t an overbooked flight, it gave United a glimpse at how social media can damage a company’s reputation.

The book also suggests ‘small wins’ for each principle that organizations can use to become an HRO. The ‘small win’ for this principle I would suggest to United would be to start asking questions that surround this principle. What needs to go right? What could go wrong? How could things go wrong? What things have gone wrong? The company is trying to bounce back and asking these questions will help avoid any further problems.


HRO Principle #2

Who doesn’t like it when things are simple? When guidelines are easy to remember and follow? But oversimplification is the enemy in HROs, which is why the second principle is resistance to simplification. United needed to get its pilots on the plane. Simplest answer? Take passengers off the flight. If bribing them didn’t work, the system would randomly select the people to kick off. Simple.

Wrong. The issue of overbooking airplanes has been a focus of airlines for years. It isn’t a simple issue so it doesn’t have a simple answer. United needs an entirely new strategy for this. So the ‘small win’ here is to raise doubts to raise information. They need to start asking the difficult questions and find a solution to their overbooking problem. It will not be simple but it will save them from situations like this.


HRO Principle #3

The final principle of anticipation, sensitivity to operations, suggests that HROs need to be hands-on organizations at every level. So high-level staff doesn’t do all the thinking and then delegating operations to other employees. The CEO of United, Oscar Munoz, admits that he didn’t know the company had a policy enabling them to bring in security in this situation. If there is a better example of a lack of sensitivity to operations I can’t find it.

For obvious reasons, I think the ‘small win’ for United handling principle #3 would be to reward managers who have great contact with the frontlines. I also think instilling a culture that encourages people to speak up about policies they don’t think work well and develops skeptics within the company is an extremely important strategy for them.


HRO Principle #4

Commitment to resilience is the first of the containment principles. This principle isn’t about having an elaborate defensive strategy but about building out strong response capabilities. The best defense is a good offense. United didn’t have strong response systems in place. They did send an email to all customers explaining the situation and what they were doing to fix the problem. But they sent this about two weeks after the incident.

My ‘small win’ for this principle is to accelerate feedback. Right now, United’s policies aren’t built for the quick but accurate responses that resilience requires. Creating these new policies takes time. It isn’t an easy task. But when the unexpected occurs again, United’s response will be accurate and timely.


HRO Principle #5

Deference to expertise, the final principle, points out that it isn’t always the people with the highest ranking that know the most about a certain situation. If there were an issue in a nuclear reactor would you want to chemist fixing the problem of the CFO? The problem is the hierarchy of authority doesn’t always correspond with knowledge hierarchy.

As for United’s situation, their best assets are their frontline employees. They deal with the customer every day. They understand what upsets people and why. United’s frontline employee should have felt empowered to take control of this situation and take better action. Moving forward, the employees and the organization as a whole want policies to paint United in the best light possible and make their customers happy.


Overall, I think United has made some positive steps forward. It did take the organization a while to admit they had made mistakes but they are now well on their way to fixing them. They have made changes in high-level positions and policy changes are coming. This situation could set them on a path to becoming a high reliability organization.



Elle Bausch is a student at Northwestern University in the Medill IMC graduate program. In May 2016, she graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia journalism school. Throughout her studies, Elle interned for the PR department of the Mall of America as well as the PR department of the Minnesota Vikings.


About Vitamin IMC 142 Articles
Vitamin IMC Content Manager

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.