Delivering Negative Messages Positively

Not all news can be good news an unfortunate reality United Airlines is facing on frequent basis. After recently removing phone based customer service, United announced a surcharge for overweight passengers meeting the following criteria:

Unable to fit into single seat in the cabin

Unable to properly buckle using a single seat belt

Unable to lower arm rests when seated

United is not the first airline to require overweight passengers to pay higher fares. Southwest enforced a similar policy in 2006 an overlooked snippet of fine print dating from the early 1980s. Examining discussions surrounding Southwests 2006 announcement in the blogosphere, social networks, forums, etc would have provided United Airlines with an understanding of online communities likely to be offended by the announcement. For example, comments such as the following suggest the morbidly obese customers are not the only customers affected:

I’m 6’2 livin in a 5’6 world

The whole world is made for people 5’7″ and 140 pounds. Some of us are 6’2″ and 260.

We need to suck it up and make seating that is commensurate with the average size of people rather than the size that we THINK they should be.

Fast forward to January, 2008 and the conversation reappears after a Delta customer receives a refund for discomfort inflicted by a nearby overweight passenger. Newsweeks Budget Travel Blog quickly garnered almost 400 comments for a resulting post entitled Should obese airplane passengers pay more? Not surprisingly, recurring themes such as the following dominate the negative sentiment from consumers:

I am 6’7″ and most airplanes do not accomadate tall people. Obese people can change their situation through dieting and exercise. Tall people have no choice but to fill like a quart of milk in a pint container.

From the historical responses, United Airlines Marketing and PR departments would have logically devised a proactive strategy to dampen backlash from consumers who are large rather than obese. Comments on blogs like WalletPop, however, display the same disgruntled remarks: I am a slightly overweight woman who travels often with my husband, a former professional athlete with large shoulders.

So why did United not utilize the wealth of insight already available to develop a proactive strategy? Thoughts other than the standard they dont get it or the airline industry sucks?