United Airlines Broke Operational Trust

Trust is a means through which we navigate the future. If, every time we left our house in the morning, entered a retailer’s premises or engaged in an online transaction, we were faced with a wall of unknowns, the state of uncertainty and fear it’d generate would paralyze us.

We aren’t paralyzed, or even afraid because in most cases we understand enough about the motivation of those we engage with to be able to predict most of the possible outcomes from that engagement. This prepares us mentally and psychologically. It allows us to calculate the benefits that we will derive from the exchange of transactional value and expanded energy on our part sufficiently to motivate us into action. 

The Trust Equation and how it leads to loyalty
United Airlines could well have tried to understand the mechanics of trust a little better.

We buy from Amazon because it’s iron-clad returns policy mitigates every unknown unknown we face there. We send money to individuals on eBay because its highly transparent and granular reputation system allows us to precisely calculate the risks involved in each transaction and reach a decision based upon our particular need for an item, its price and the individual seller’s reputation. 

Our daily lives are made up of hundreds and sometimes thousands of such calculations, each of which would exhaust us were it not for the expediency of assumptions based upon common understandings. These assumptions are seen as ‘certainties’ which allow the process of calculating trust to be simplified to the point that it becomes almost instant. 

United Airlines now appears to have managed “to disrupt a number of those certainties” in an industry that can barely afford it. 

Almost $1 billion has been wiped off its value as a result, virtually overnight and the company is now going to have an uphill struggle to project itself with any sincerity to its customer base. United has pretty much destroyed the Operational Trust it enjoyed with its customers.

Operational Trust and how it works
United Airlines, in a single move, burnt all the Operational Trust the company enjoyed.

In the chapter on Operational Trust in The Tribe That Discovered Trust I wrote: 

The best definition of Operational Trust I came across was given by Major Nicole Blatt, USAF when for the 9th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium Coalition Transformation she submitted a paper titled Operational Trust: A New Look at the Human Requirement in Network Centric Warfare. Working from the point of view of a battlefield unit, needing to work cooperatively with her own and allied forces on a large scale battlefield Blatt wrote: “Trust is a bet that those entities, which you cannot control, will act in a predictable manner that is favorable to your cause.” 

And she went on to specify operational trust as “trust in the information, subordinates, superiors, peers, and equipment.” In that last sentence she describes a universe. Whether you are an army or a warehouse supplier. A force of Marines operating remotely in a battlefield that itself is made up of many other moving pieces, or one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers charged with getting items purchased to an address in time for a birthday party, the challenge, from a logistics point of view is the same: You need to be able to trust the process.  Trust in the process means it is dependable. Dependable processes deliver consistent quality. Consistent quality leads to predictable results and end user loyalty.

Customer loyalty is something United has just lost. It will struggle to get it back and it will now have to spend even more money.   

United Airlines Update April 2017

When it rains, it appears to pour as the old saying goes, particularly for United whose culture of inflexibility when it comes to dealing with their paying customers is beginning to lead to more customer-service horror stories coming to light. 

It is clear by now that there is lack of leadership within the company and a corporate culture that is systemically rotten. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the future of the airline.