United Airlines turns a manageable situation into a total disaster

United's PR team flew the airline into a world of self-inflicted harm.
Cam MacMurchy

As a PR flak I hear the jokes about my profession, and I’m not above tossing a few zingers myself. PR people don’t get much respect, and Sean Spicer certainly hasn’t helped. But there are times when people in my line of work truly earn their salaries; when a crisis of epic proportions hits that has the potential to upend a company or entire industry. Think the BP Horizon oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or the Volkswagen emissions fiasco from 2015.

The violent removal of a passenger sitting on board a United Airlines flight is another cataclysmic event for a public company. It will deeply wound all airline companies and is so disturbing that few (but there are a few) are able to defend it. The video, which has been flung around the world online, is gutwrenching, and leaves the viewer with searing anger at the violent injustice against an innocent man who could be any one of us. It’s personal. This is disaster with a capital D, and United, somehow, failed to recognize it.

I am traveling the Scottish highlands at the moment, so haven’t been tuned to the incessant cable news chatter, website tirades and newspaper inches that I’m sure have been dedicated to the story. But what has stood out from a distance is the massive PR fail from United, which took a seriously bad situation and turned it into a complete disaster. Good communications can rarely get a company ‘off the hook’, so to speak, but it can help make the company more relatable and lessen the intensity of the anger. United Airlines did the opposite, and its response will be in textbooks for years to come as a case study in what not to do.

So let’s break this down. Here is what United Airlines issued on April 10, shortly after the incident:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

— Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

As the Financial Times noted, this looks like a canned response that could have been used in the event of a blizzard. In a crisis, the first thing to do is understand public sentiment; that is, get on the same emotional plane before crafting a response. In this case, people around the world were shocked, angry, and ready to march on United Airlines with pitchforks. United instead focused on the inconvenience of having to “re-accommodate customers”, which was so far off point I’m shocked it passed through United’s PR and executive teams. I don’t think the re-acommodation of passengers is what lit a fire under millions of people worldwide (but call me crazy). The first response in a crisis is the most important; it needs to accurately reflect the severity of the incident and try and diffuse it. By responding with empty platitudes, it made people feel like United was brushing it off, making them hate the airline even more.

Instead, United might have issued something like this:

“We are absolutely shocked about what happened on board Flight 3411. Nobody, under any circumstance, should be removed from an aircraft in such a violent way. We are deeply disturbed by this event and will conduct a thorough review of our policies and procedures to ensure this never happens again. We offer our sincerest apologies to the passenger, and all other passengers on board United Flight 3411 who witnessed this horrific incident. We know you expect more from us, and we promise to get to the bottom of what happened.”

— A Fictitious American Airlines CEO

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz then issued a letter to all staff. This is more difficult, because he is writing to address two distinct stakeholders: UA staff and angry customers. (He surely must have known the letter would leak). Unfortunately he failed on both counts:

“Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

— Ocar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to start.

The word “upset” doesn’t nearly come close to understanding and reflecting the vitriol and disgust people felt after watching the video. People get “upset” when the chicken is gone and only beef is left. Again, Munoz failed to grasp the seriousness of the issue.

Then this: “…with respect to why the customer defied the Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did…”. This makes it seem like it was the man’s fault. While there may be some truth to the fact he did defy officers, this isn’t the time or the place to mention it. It goes against the general mood and comes off as petulant and defensive. This is something for another time, not a letter to staff within hours of the incident and when the world is watching.

This: “Our employees followed established procedures…”. This is when Munoz is trying to serve two masters. He is correctly trying to show support for his staff, but it comes off as tone-deaf to the public. If “following established procedures” means an innocent man is knocked out in a violent confrontation and has blood dripping down his face, then perhaps the procedures need changing.

Finally: “…I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” This sounds like something taken out of a promotional pamphlet, and again is completely tone-deaf. It’s obvious to everyone that United Airlines didn’t “fly right”, much less “ensure” it’s so. Munoz is caught again between the two stakeholders, but surely even his staff felt the vacuousness of these words. Munoz only needed to say that the situation is deeply disturbing, he apologizes that his staff needed to live through this, remind them they do a great job day to day, and let them know he’s going to get to the bottom of it so they never have to be put in that situation again. That’s it.

Oh, and by the way: at this point Munoz still hadn’t apologized to the guy who was knocked out and dragged off the flight — you know, his paying customer.

I’m not sure what happened after this letter, but Munoz must have gotten some new communications counsel. His next media statement, issued on April 11, comes much closer to hitting the mark:

“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.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.

Sincerely,

Oscar ”

— Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

A few things I liked about this:

  • He gets the severity. “Truly horrific event”, “outrage, anger, disappointment”. He’s communicating that he gets it.
  • He finally apologizes to the customer.
  • He takes responsibility.
  • “It is never too late to do the right thing.” This is key, because it shows humility and is a tacit admission that things (including communications) haven’t been done properly. We are all more willing to forgive somebody with a dash of humility and an earnest desire to improve.
  • He is taking action: he details what will be covered in the review and when it will be concluded.

The situation is still evolving and there is plenty of time for further screw-ups, but it seems United might finally be on track in terms of communications. Whatever happens from here on out, the case of Flight 3411 will be studied by in-house communications teams around the world.

A few more points, unrelated to communications:

Overbooking

This case has shone a light on the issue of overbooking, which airlines have been doing for decades. Ironically, the problem on Flight 3411 was not overbooking, but the need for United Airlines’ own staff to travel. Overbooking may be a problem that deserves attention, but in my view this is much worse: no paying customer should be taken off a plane to make room for staff traveling for free, ever. It is the airline’s responsibility to get staff to where they need to be; asking paying customers to sacrifice for them is completely offside. Imagine a restaurant saying they can’t serve food because their waiters need to eat it, or Disneyland staff cutting in line because they need to experience Pirates of the Caribbean, too.

Denial of boarding

Several stories note that airlines can deny boarding (according to the terms and conditions of the ticket) if they choose. In fact, the rules give airlines a wide berth to deny boarding; what seems lost in this argument is David Dao, the Vietnamese-American doctor, wasn’t denied boarding. He was already sitting on the plane. I am not a lawyer, but to me this raises other questions: can an airline force a fully-paying passenger, already seated, off a flight without cause?

Fallout for other airlines

All airlines are stressing about overbooking and treatment of customers following this incident. It is a sensitive time in the industry, when even the slightest misstep could trigger an avalanche of complaints and anger. The public mood toward airlines is dark.

Service with airlines (particularly American ones; Asian carriers figured out proper customer service long ago) has been in serious decline for years, and the public has so far been able to grin and bear it. But after this, there’s no guarantee customers will continue to be so forgiving. United Airlines Flight 3411 has the potential to upend the entire relationship between airlines and their customers, and that would be a silver lining to an otherwise despicable incident.

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