Firestorm Over Forced Removal Proves Costly for United

United Airlines stock tumbled nearly 4% in early trading Tuesday morning before recovering late in the day as the company continued to deal with fallout after video surfaced showing a passenger being forcibly dragged from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. United shares were down by as much as 6% in premarket trading Tuesday morning, according to MarketWatch.

Shocked viewers responded with universal outrage Monday to a video appearing to show a 69-year old man being brutally dragged off his flight by three uniformed officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation, one of which has since been placed on leave. The man’s face was bloodied and he appeared disheveled as officers dragged him along the narrow aisle of the plane.

“The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department,” the agency said in a statement. “That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation.”

Compounding the Airline’s misery was a letter sent to employees Monday night by United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, saying that he supported the actions of the flight’s crew in removing the passenger, who Munoz accused of being “disruptive and belligerent.” Munoz later apologized directly to the passenger but his public sentiment was judged disingenuous in the wake of the leaked employee memo.

The passenger was removed from the flight to make room for four United employees, although it was initially reported that the passenger was removed from the flight to Louisville due to overbooking—a standard industry practice of selling more seats on any given flight than are actually available to shield the airline from lost revenue from no-shows. Although the flight was not technically overbooked, United followed the policy in order to seat the four employees.

In 2016, the 12 largest U.S. airlines bumped slightly more than 40,600 of 659.7 million passengers, for a rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers, down from 0.73 per 10,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Bloomberg reported.

In this case, the airline requested that four passengers relinquish their seats to United employees. According to reports, the airline first offered passengers $400 in addition to hotel and flight vouchers, and then raised the cash component to $800. When there were no takers, the airline chose four passengers to be removed. Approached by the flight’s crew, the man declined to give up his seat, asserting that he is a doctor and needed to see patients Monday morning.

The incident also sparked an international outrage across China, where it was the top item trending on Sina Weibo, as it was reported the removed passenger was Asian. The BBC reported that a passenger seated next to the doctor said the doctor was originally from Vietnam, where there was also widespread negative reaction. The hashtag #UnitedForcesPassengerOffPlane had more than 270 million views and an online petition, “Chinese Lives Matter,” which has some 38,000 signatures and calls for a U.S. investigation into the case, according to Bloomberg.

Reputational damage can be potentially costly as a company may have to deal with expenses related to managing a crises, such as public relations and advertising, as well as any loss to the company’s stock market value. The incident is the second in as many weeks to envelop United, which previously suffered scorn in the court of public opinion after barring two nonrevenue passengers from boarding a flight based on a dress code violation.

United’s largest shareholder is Warren Buffet, whose 9% stake in the airline, worth roughly $2 billion, was down some $90 million when United’s stock was at its lowest point on Tuesday.

Wells Fargo: What Should Have Happened

wells-fargo

When Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees in September for inappropriate sales practices, then-CEO John Stumpf approached the scandal with an outdated playbook. In response to the $185 million in fines levied by regulators, he first denied any knowledge of the illegitimate accounts. Attempting to mitigate press fallout by distancing the company from a group of “bad eggs” acting independently is not the answer, however. Even if Stumpf had maintained this assertion of innocence, changes in the risk environment over the past few years demand a proactive approach.

Rather than simply deflecting responsibility in these situations, executives must be able to accomplish two things:

• Provide historical evidence of due diligence and risk management (if such a program was actually used)
• Demonstrate how the company is adjusting its policies and/or implementing new policies to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future

In 2010, the SEC’s Proxy Disclosure Enhancement (rule 33-9089) explicitly made boards of directors responsible for assessing and disclosing risk management effectiveness to shareholders. It mandates the use of risk monitoring systems to demonstrate that existing controls (mitigation activities) are effective. Under this rule, “not knowing” about an activity performed by employees is considered negligence. This is a crucial development; negligence carries the same penalty as fraud, but it does not require proof of intent. The Yates Memo (2015) gave the SEC ruling more “teeth” by requiring organizations to provide the Department of Justice with all the facts related to responsible individuals.

As a result, many companies have suffered significant penalties and frequently criminal charges, even though their executives were allegedly unaware of illicit activities. Consider the emissions scandal at Volkswagen and fines paid (to the SEC) by global health science company Nordion Inc. In both instances, deceptions were perpetrated by individuals below the executive level, but senior management’s inability to detect/prevent the incidents came back to bite them.

How to Prevent Risk Management Failures at Your Organization

John Stumpf’s approach should have started with an admission of Wells Fargo’s failure in risk management processes across the enterprise, followed by evidence that a more effective, formal enterprise risk management process is being implemented. For example, risk assessments must cascade from senior management down to the front lines and across all business silos. This ensures that the personnel most familiar with operational risks (and how to mitigate them) can keep the board informed.

In other words, instead of simply apologizing and attempting to provide restitution, Stumpf should have demonstrated that Wells Fargo is taking proactive risk management measures to protect its many stakeholders. It is the company’s duty to ensure that something like this never happens again.

The scandal is predictably following the same track as have previous failures in risk management: it starts with regulatory penalties, then leads to punitive damages, class action lawsuits, and finally, criminal charges and individual liability, depending on the particular case. The key to this pattern is the absence of adequate risk management, which means negligence under the new enterprise risk management laws, regulations and mandates passed since 2010.

The good news is that avoiding serious, long-term consequences is possible if proper actions are taken. For example, by providing a historical record of risk management practices, Morgan Stanley avoided regulatory penalties when an employee evaded existing internal controls. Other corporations that can provide evidence of an effective risk management program (risk assessments, internal controls that address risks, monitoring activities over these internal controls, and an electronic due-diligence trail) are largely exempt from punitive damages, class-action lawsuits, and possible jail time.

When implemented proactively, effective risk management systems have and will continue to prevent scandals, regulatory fines, litigation and imprisonment. For a more in-depth analysis of the Wells Fargo scandal, read the LogicManager blog post “The Walls Fargo Scandal is a Failure in Risk Management.”

Chipotle Provides Yet More Reminders of D&O and Food Safety Risks

chipotle food borne illness outbreaks

If the average food safety crisis or product recall forces companies to weather a storm, Chipotle has spent the past year trying to weather a category 4 hurricane. Now months into their recovery effort, it seems they are still seeing significant storm surges.
Last week, a group of Chipotle shareholders filed a federal lawsuit accusing executives of “failing to establish quality-control and emergency-response measures to prevent and then stop food-borne illnesses that sickened customers across the country and proved costly to the company,” the Denver Post reported. The suit accuses executives, the board of directors, and managers of unjust enrichment and seeks compensation from Chipotle’s co-CEOs, while also asking for corporate-governance reforms and changes to internal procedures to comply with laws and protect shareholders.

Sales remain significantly impacted by the series of six foodborne illness outbreaks last year. The company reported in July that same-store sales fell another 23.6% in Q2, marking the third straight quarter of declines for performance even lower than analysts had predicted. The company’s stock remains drastically impacted, currently trading at about $394 compared to a high of $749 before the outbreaks came to light a year ago.

In addition to the most recent shareholder lawsuit, the bad news for directors and officers specifically has also been further compounded recently. Shareholder lawsuits were filed earlier this year alleging the company had misled investors about its food safety measures, made “materially false and misleading statements,” and did not disclose that its “quality controls were not in compliance with applicable consumer and workplace safety regulations.” In June, a group of shareholders sued a number of top executives for allegedly violating their fiduciary responsibilities and engaging in insider trading. Relying on insider knowledge about insufficient food safety protocols, the suit alleges that the executives sold hundreds of thousands of shares in the first half of 2015 before the food poisoning scandal was made public.

Check out previous coverage of the Chipotle crisis in the Risk Management March cover story “Dia de la Crisis: The Chipotle Outbreaks Highlight Supply Chain Risks.”

Delta Limping Back to Normalcy

After two days of cancellations due to a system-wide outage, leaving thousands of customers stranded, Delta today announced it will return to normal operation by mid-to-late afternoon. It added a caveat, however, that “a chance of scattered thunderstorms expected in the eastern U.S. may have the potential to slow the recovery.”

Delta said that by late morning on Wednesday it had canceled 255 flights whileDelta 1,500 departed. About 800 flights were canceled on Tuesday and there were around 1,000 cancellations on Monday. It also extended its travel waiver and continued to provide hotel vouchers, of which more than 2,300 were issued Tuesday night in Atlanta alone.

“The technology systems that allow airport customer service agents to process check-ins, conduct boarding and dispatch aircraft are functioning normally with the bulk of delays and cancellations coming as a result of flight crews displaced or running up against their maximum allowed duty period following the outage,” Delta said.

The company’s chief operating officer, Gil West, said on Aug. 9:

Monday morning a critical power control module at our Technology Command Center malfunctioned, causing a surge to the transformer and a loss of power. The universal power was stabilized and power was restored quickly. But when this happened, critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to backups. Other systems did. And now we’re seeing instability in these systems. For example we’re seeing slowness in a system that airport customer service agents use to process check-ins, conduct boarding and dispatch aircraft. Delta agents today are using the original interface we designed for this system while we continue with our resetting efforts.

Reuters reported:

Like many large airlines, Delta uses its proprietary computer system for its bookings and operations, and the fact that other airlines appeared unaffected by the outage also pointed to the company’s equipment, said independent industry analyst Robert Mann.

Critical computer systems have backups and are tested to ensure high reliability, he said. It was not clear why those systems had not worked to prevent Delta’s problems, he said.

“That suggests a communications component or network component could have failed,” he said.

The airline has not yet detailed the financial impact of the event.