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The United Airlines PR Disaster

Posted in Business and Law, Society and Morals, and Travel

On Sunday 9 April, United Airlines flight UA3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked as people were going home for the start of a new working week. Four people were asked to volunteer to be bumped off with an incentive of $800, a hotel for the night, and an alternative flight, which was the next day. No one volunteered, and somehow the crew allowed all the passengers to board. Appeals were made again, and usually the money offered is increased, but it wasn’t and again there were no volunteers. Airlines have the discretion to bump passengers, but are usually based on factors such as whether they are traveling alone, how much they paid, or their final destination. In this case it appears the computer randomly generated four passenger names (unconfirmed), and three left as requested, but one objected. Instead the American Chinese doctor was pulled out his seat, which led to a bloody facial injury as he was dragged out on the floor by airport security. Some say he argued, but he did have a valid reason it appears as he had patients to see the next day and couldn’t cancel them. Regardless, this doesn’t excuse the actions of the staff who dragged the man off the plane and who caused actual bodily harm.

One of the issues is the fact some domestic services are outsourced. The flight is operated by Republic Airlines, on behalf of United Airlines, but is still the responsibility of the parent company. The actual flight is only 1 hour and 22 minutes and is also a codeshare flight to enable other airlines to offer connections. Herein lies of the issues when standards are not met, and on this occasion the staff on all sides were incorrectly trained in relation to the procedures. The reason why they needed to bump off passengers was to allow four United Airlines staff to get to the airport, but that is just plain poor management. The staff should have been booked onto flight earlier, and bumped off passengers should have been decided before boarding. Neither was done and would have prevented the social media furor against the airline.

The CEO of the airline (Oscar Munoz) has made a partial public apology, however, his letter to staff the next day contradicted that and said he stood by their actions. The leaked email was no surprise because in this day and age, confidential communications that have double standards are always revealed. Calls to boycott the airline have flooded the internet as well as the video clip of the incident that several passengers have posted online. Clearly United Airlines have underestimated the power of social media. While race isn’t an issue, one wonders if the passenger had been a 25-year-old blonde, white woman wearing a dress and heels, would she have been dragged out in an undignified manner?

Having worked in a major airport I have seen first hand at the lack of experience some airline staff have, because the jobs go to people who live nearby and who are prepared to work the unsociable hours and not necessarily the best people for the job. Staff work in shifts, often doing doubles, and managers rarely communicate with other areas of the airline. It’s possible that United Airlines failed to communicate they needed their staff on that flight in time and as a consequence the call to bump passengers came too late in the day. Regardless there is a way to handle such matters, especially in public and dragging a man off the plane after injuring him is not professional, or even humane despite the rules. A company needs to understand a reputation depends on how the public perceives them, and it is they who made the mistake and failed to rectify it adequately. Instead the CEO has blamed the passenger as being disruptive. Arguing or protesting doesn’t mean justify injuring and restraining a passenger that is not a threat to others

Yes, they could have offered more money, shouldn’t have overbooked the flight, and made adequate provisions for staff travel. The problem is that the airline doesn’t appear to see the error of their ways, while the rest of the world (paying passengers and media) can. The question is can they survive this PR disaster? I’ve flown United a few times and it was more of a convenience as the flight times were the best, but the service definitely wasn’t. American based airlines in general don’t have a great reputation, and this incident only reinforces this.

These days with more budget airlines, the major airlines feel compelled to cut costs to be more profitable. Staff are offered short term contracts (less pay), offered less training, services are outsourced, and few offer any decent refreshments. British Airways recently announced they would not be offering some meals on short haul flights (less than five hours), and could charge for meals on long haul flights. The current chairman (Alex Cruz, who started his career with American Airlines) says the idea to offer sandwiches people can pay for is going well, but I doubt people buy them because they want to, but because they are hungry. I personally don’t mind skipping a meal for a discount, but when I pay the same price and get less service, then I’ll go elsewhere. I suspect many will bring their own sandwiches on board instead or choose another airline, but this is the problem with those in the corporate head office—they have no idea how the actual people feel despite genuine Twitter and Facebook posts. They want to think they are right, but when passengers go elsewhere they will be out of a job. As people often book flights up to a year in advance for special events, the actual effects won’t be realized for at least 18 months. Methinks I’ll be flying Virgin Atlantic from now on. I don’t think people will be choosing United Airlines unless they have airmiles to use judging from the public outcry. Apparently the share price of United Airlines has dropped, losing about $990 million at the time of writing.

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