I think the recent United Airlines “Customer Re-Accommodation” episode offers a valuable lesson and even a potential warning for driver safety technology companies and the fleet safety managers who implement those technologies.

There are lessons for all in the epic customer service failure in Chicago – from the heavy-handed police response, to the computerized booking system. However, I would like to focus on how the application of rules and accountability systems for United employees tell us something about the need to empower drivers, even as we ask them to be more accountable and transparent in everything they do.

It seems to me that United sadly dis-empowered its employees to do what they likely knew was appropriate in a heated and difficult situation. How can it be that professional emergency management personnel, well trained in how to get hundreds of passengers off of a burning airplane, were unable to avoid having a 70 year-old, non-violent, fare-paying passenger physically dragged off the plane?

Safety technology systems are designed to hold drivers accountable for their actions – whether they be active systems such as anti-collision brakes, or more passive systems such as the SpeedGauge Safety Center or in-vehicle cameras. Certainly, obeying the speed limit is a matter of law, and drivers should definitely be held accountable for speeding. But it is increasingly important to empower drivers and to not simply demand greater accountability. If we don’t empower drivers, just like the United employees, they will lose their ability to use judgment and professional skills to manage something like a missed delivery window – not unlike an overbooked flight.

Remember the days when an airline check-in staffer could be bribed for an upgrade with a smile, a warm Cinnabon or a sob story? Those days are gone. The power to delight a customer with a free upgrade has been taken away from airline counter staff and handed to computer algorithms that allot upgrades according to customer loyalty and ticket profitability metrics. So too, the ability to assist the “re-accommodation” of passengers through generous grants of compensation for those who give up their seats.

In the case of professional drivers, the ability to speed or drive out of route may have been taken away. But what have we given them in return? We can look directly inside our own industry to find a fleet that has implemented an excellent way to empower drivers.

Bison Transport has won the Transport Carriers Association (TCA) ‘Best Fleet to Drive for’ award five times in a row in part because their ‘Right to Decide Policy’. The policy empowers drivers to turn down any trip, any load, or any maneuver if they feel it is unsafe – and to do so knowing that they will have full backing of their management. Bison might monitor their drivers behavior electronically via active and passive systems, but they accompany that accountability with a grant of full authority to the driver to turn down business.

In the case of the airlines, I don’t expect that United will go back to the days of letting check-in staff get bribed with Cinnabons, but I hold out hope that they will empower their staff to use company resources to quell emotions, manage expectations, and avoid unfortunate incidents in the future.

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