United: A Lesson in PR


Trevor Stewart, Writer

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say United Airlines PR team has been searching for a parachute over the past month to slow their Company’s descending public image and rapidly declining stock prices.

The company first came under fire this year for stopping two girls from boarding a plane. Why? The two ladies were wearing leggings. Naturally, social media wasn’t pleased when the story came out. United didn’t help their case with their response, although they did clarify later that the passengers who were refused were flying for free as pass riders (relatives of an employee).  

After that statement was released, the situation pretty much died down. I’m sure the PR team was off somewhere, celebrating the avoided crisis. At that point, the team probably went into cruise control, or better yet autopilot, operating as normal. Little did they know, there was a storm brewing and the PR team was flying straight into it.

What a storm it was! A video surfaced of passenger, David Dao,  being forcibly removed from a United flight. After the video went viral and sparked public outrage, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a poorly worded statement in response. This statement had the exact opposite effect of what was originally intended, enraging the public instead of calming the situation. Ironically, this was a month after Munoz received an award for “Communicator of the Year” from PRWeek. Munoz’s acceptance speech seem to mock him after his failed attempt at damage control.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, it did – a man was stung by a scorpion on a flight from Houston, Texas to Calgary, Canda.

As if the leggings controversy, the removal incident, and scorpions weren’t bad enough, United also had to deal with a serious decline in their stock value.

The previously mentioned events left many potential flyers with more questions than answers. Kerry Robinson, a Delta Airlines employee, gave some insights from an industrial perspective.

If a similar situation were to occur where your airline overbooked a flight, how would it have been handled?

“Flights are overbooked on a daily basis based on no-show factors.  We make money when seats are filled.  If a passenger changes their mind at the last minute to travel at a different day/time, overbooking ensures we still go out with no empty seats.  For us in HSV, Monday mornings are the worst.  I paid out $18400 in vouchers for 4 oversold flights this past Monday.”

One of the questions many are asking is could this situation have been avoided. The simple answer: yes. Dr. Dao could’ve very easily volunteered to go (and received compensation for doing so). At the same time, United certainly could’ve handled this situation more delicately. Robinson elaborated that while the situation could’ve been avoided, ultimately the airline was trying to meet flying requirements and that by bumping 4 passengers off the plane it would prevent the flight from being canceled entirely.

What is the policy for having someone refuse to give up their seat?

Ultimately, you can’t refuse to give up your seat.  It’s not your seat.  You pay a rental fee for a spot on the plane.  Nobody has a God-given right to fly.  In all the fine print that people just mark “ok” when they buy their ticket, it says the airline has the right to refuse transportation to anyone they deem necessary.  Could be because they are drunk, too large for their seat, have body odor, or because the flight is overbooked. The airline has the final decision who will be on the plane and your ticket can be refunded at any time.  It’s in the fine print that nobody reads called Contract of Carriage.  Every airline has one as required by law.”  

But the customer is always right?

Robinson’s take on that sentiment points out the sense of entitlement many passengers have.

“People sometimes forget that airlines are a For Profit industry.  I can’t waive a bag fee for you because you think it’s right and Southwest doesn’t charge for bags.  I mean, you can’t go to Burger King and expect them to make you a Big Mac because that’s what you want.  Some think because they bought a cheap ticket to LGA but JFK is closer to where they need to be, that we should just change it for free.  It just doesn’t work that way as you know.”

While I initially sympathized with Dr.  Dao, after getting a deeper understanding of airlines and how they operate I side more so with United; in spite of the abyssal initial attempts at damage control. Reflecting on the incident neither party was innocent and after watching the involved parties tussle in mud we all felt dirty. Hopefully, this unfortunate situation will be used as a lesson for customers and United alike as they try to clean up their image.

For the interview with Kerry Robinson in its entirety: click here.