Anyone who has the misfortune of flying United – even in the big bucks cabins – knows that sense of being on board a prison ship where you have to keep the wardens happy for fear of verbal reprimand or punishment. Sit anywhere near the galley and listen to the crew talking – in 15 minutes you’ll hear all the evidence you need of what’s going wrong with the airline. United’s disillusioned staff are the embodiment of a business that prioritises systems over service, control over customers, subservience over solutions, and profits over people. They are the classic example of an organisation behaving like the machines it employs and seeing staff and customers simply as inputs to be transformed into outputs in the form of profits.
In the grand scheme of things, the incident raises massive warning signs for those embarking on flights of corporate transformation to an anticipated digital nirvana. Around the world, medium to large enterprises are spending hundreds of millions – and in some cases more than a billion – US dollars on digital transformation and AI automation programmes. These are primarily designed to create a hyper-efficient, low cost “algorithmic business” and replace humans wherever possible with smart and adaptive software. The appeal is that these shiny new systems will work 24/7/365, learn, adapt, respond consistently, never have an off day or a day off, and service peaks in business demand at no extra cost.
However, the warning bells should be ringing, the United case highlights what happens when we place too much store in technology. In this case, there was no real AI involved, just a set of rigid rules embedded in software and a removal of almost all freedom, capacity and incentive for staff to use their own initiative. Anyone – literally anyone – could have told United of the PR disaster that would ensue in today’s smartphone enabled and social media fuelled environment if they chose to send police onto the plane to forcibly remove Dr Dao. Had the United ground staff been able to use common sense and felt the courage to do so, they would have put their own staff on another flight or hired a limo to get them to Louisville, both of which would almost certainly have cost less than the US$800 plus accommodation that they were offering to each of the four passengers they wanted to remove. United could also have offered progressively higher levels of deplaning compensation until someone took the bait – suggestions range from US$1,000 – 1,300 as to what that figure might have been. United’s system doesn’t appear to have been equipped to make such choices or offer sensible suggestions, and the airline staff involved certainly didn’t look like they felt empowered to do so.