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NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - When the world's most powerful chief executive is renowned for never apologizing, it takes a special form of incompetence to be upstaged in the contrition department by Donald Trump's White House. Somehow, against extraordinary odds, United Continental Holdings – a U.S. airline reliant on customer loyalty – managed this dunderheaded achievement.
It took Oscar Munoz, chief executive of the $22 billion company, more than a day, and the incineration of up to half a billion dollars of investor wealth, before he finally found the right words to respond to his company’s latest mistake: the revelation that it enlisted airport security officers to forcibly remove a passenger from one of its planes after selling too many seats on the flight.
Even White House flack Sean Spicer managed to apologize with greater finesse. In a press briefing on Tuesday he appeared to minimize the horrors of the Holocaust. From this, and United's "re-accommodate- gate,” there is a lesson to be gleaned by all businesses. The value of the humble apology is incalculable. Say sorry first, ask questions later.
United isn't the first enterprise to flub in penitence. Nor will it be the last. Recent corporate history is chockablock with attempts to regain the favor of customers. General Motors' boss Mary Barra was "deeply sorry" for the suffering that resulted from the car company's ignition-switch fiasco. It helped that GM followed up by paying out $600 million to victims.
Last month, Uber founder Travis Kalanick expressed remorse for berating one of his drivers in a petulant exchange that, like tossing the United passenger from the plane, surfaced in a video that went viral. Kalanick even acknowledged with psychoanalytical flair that he needed help "and I intend to get it."
Munoz needed multiple attempts to make things right. His first stated Sunday’s incident was "an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” That’s reminiscent of former BP chief Tony Hayward's sullen apology for the oil firm's 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill in which he whined that he "would like his life back." A subsequent try to United staff seemed to suggest the passenger was at fault.
By Wednesday morning, in an interview with ABC, Munoz managed to strike the right, penitential tone. An hour later, United stock regained half of its previous day's losses. Having to say sorry isn't hard. It should just come a lot more naturally in the executive suite.
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