United Airline’s Public Relations Disaster

Last week, United Airline found itself making news for all the wrong reasons when it dragged an elderly doctor off an overbooked flight. The company is now paying the price.

In the airline industry, there are two ways to ensure that flights leave the airport with the maximum number of passengers on board. Some airlines, such as Air Canada, schedule multiple flights between popular destinations (e.g., Toronto and New York City). Throughout the day, they cancel flights and bump passengers to the next flight to ensure they have a full plane when they take off. By booking more flights than needed, one never loses a seat but one may face a delay from time to time.  Unfortunately, booking runway space is expensive. The more cost-effective approach, which United Airlines and most airlines in the United States embrace, is overbooking a smaller number of flights each day. For this approach to work, however, one counts on a few passengers not showing up for each flight. When everyone does show up things can and do go awry.

How Airlines Address Overbooked Flights

The standard way of dealing with an overbooked flight is to first ask anyone if they would like to give up their seat for an incentive (e.g., a cash reward, gift card or additional air miles). Only last week, one woman traveling across the United States on Delta reported gaining over $11,000 in rewards as she volunteered to cancel her flights. When no one steps up for a cash reward, airlines have other protocols. If someone who paid a higher price shows up, the person who boarded last at a lowest price may be asked to step off. While this may not sound fair, it’s how airlines deal with their overbooking situations. But of course, not everyone can do this, including anyone traveling for work.

This was the case for Dr. David Dao. The physician, in his late 60s, was traveling for work when he was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight by two security guards.  The removal was recorded by horrified passengers. In the end, Dr. Dao, who has not held a press conference about the incident but has hired a lawyer, suffered a head injury and several other injuries.  Now Dr. Dao and other flyers nationwide are now looking to United Airlines for answers. Why was the elderly doctor asked to give up his seat and why was he dragged off the plane by two armed security guards?

United Airlines Response

United Airlines initially brushed aside Dr. Dao’s complain. Then, on April 11, shortly after videos of Dr. Dao’s forced removable from his flight went viral, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz released the following statement: “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.  I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”   In the same press release, Munoz announced that he was launching a full investigation and would release the results by April 30th.

Two days later, United released a second statement with clearer details on how they would respond immediately to their overbooking policy: “First, we are committing that United will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety and security.  Second, we’ve started a thorough review of policies that govern crew movement, incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.  Third, we will fully review and improve our training programs to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first.” In the second statement, there was also an indication that Munoz had already contacted Dr. Dao and his family to apologize for the incident.

Key Take Aways from the United Airlines Incident

United and its CEO Oscar Munoz  initially responded to the incident with denial and defensiveness. They they then scrambled to make amends. The incident revealed a major flaw in the company’s overbooking system and suggested that its training of security personnel was also flawed. Had the company immediately issued an apology and clear statement that it was responsible for the wrongdoing, they would no doubt be better off now. Likewise, calling for a full investigation immediately would have pointed to stronger leadership and a clearer vision. While their subsequent press releases may have mitigated some of the damage, most of the damage was already done by the time Munoz retracted his earlier statement.

The take away is clear: Corporate communications are about more than one’s public image; they are about keeping an entire organization on the same page. This is evidently one area that United Airlines will need to start attending to as it works to rebuild its tarnished image and stock value over the coming months.


April 15, 2017   Updated :February 8, 2018      

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