The un­friendly skies

United Airlines learns an ex­pen­sive les­son in cus­tomer care

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

One man’s misery can be another man’s meat, and busi­ness-school stu­dents look­ing for a les­son in how not to turn a man­age­able cri­sis into an un­con­trolled pub­lic-re­la­tions catas­tro­phe will owe United Airlines a debt for years to come.

United faced a mi­nor cri­sis Sun­day night in Chicago. A flight in Louisville needed a crew, and the air­line had to send one there from Chicago. For­tu­nately, United Flight 3411 was wait­ing on the tar­mac, bound for Louisville. The flight was full, but the air­line could ask for vol­un­teers to give up their seats, sched­ule them on a later flight and pay them for their trou­ble.

Airlines do this all the time when they sell more tick­ets for a flight than they have seats avail­able. It’s usu­ally a good deal for every­one. But this time there were only three vol­un­teers and United needed four seats. A com­puter, or maybe it was a clerk, picked a pas­sen­ger and, like a sergeant choos­ing a man for a par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous mis­sion, se­lected a “vol­un­teer.”

The se­lected pas­sen­ger wouldn’t budge. Se­cu­rity was called and two men, built like bounc­ers at a bar on the South Side of Chicago, showed up and “budged” him, pulling one Dr. David Dao of El­iz­a­beth­town, Ky., from a win­dow seat and then, with the luck­less doc­tor scream­ing, bleed­ing and his clothes in dis­ar­ray, dragged him up the aisle to the front of the plane, like a cave man tak­ing prey home to the cave.

This was not wise in the era of the smart phone. Two pas­sen­gers filmed a video, with the sounds of other pas­sen­gers yelling for the bounc­ers to stop. The pas­sen­ger lost his glasses, ac­quired a busted lip, and the video went vi­ral on the In­ter­net, watched by mil­lions across the world.

The airlines were once the fa­vorites of trav­el­ers, but that was be­fore air travel be­came like a ride on a crowded street­car in Au­gust, with pas­sen­gers jammed into nar­row seats amongst the ill-clothed and un­washed bod­ies of strangers. The de­mands of se­cu­rity in the age of ji­had could trans­form a hol­i­day trip into a ride from hell.

Os­car Munoz, the CEO of United, first tried an apol­ogy, not to the bat­tered pas­sen­ger, but only for “hav­ing to re-ac­com­mo­date cus­tomers.” That mes­sage, too, went vi­ral on the In­ter­net. A news­pa­per in China, ob­serv­ing that the pas­sen­ger looked Chi­nese, played the race card, ac­cus­ing United of racism. Mr. Munoz, re­cov­er­ing from heart-trans­plant surgery, tried again the next morn­ing. He thanked United em­ploy­ees for fol­low­ing “es­tab­lished pro­ce­dures” in deal­ing with a “dis­rup­tive and bel­liger­ent” pas­sen­ger.

By now, it was time to call in pub­lic-re­la­tions help. Mr. Munoz tried a third apol­ogy Tues­day, this time dispensing with cor­po­rate-speak for some­thing hu­man. He called the in­ci­dent “truly hor­rific.” He had heard the “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.” And to show that he was an all-around guy, he signed the apol­ogy “Os­car.”

United has to watch its lan­guage now, lest what­ever the CEO says be used later by lawyers for Dr. Dao. If Dr. Dao does not ac­tu­ally have a lawyer yet, you can bet that he won’t have dif­fi­culty find­ing one.

United can kick it­self for not of­fer­ing es­ca­lat­ing bids for the seat — $2,000, $3,000, even $5,000 or a week­end for two in Paris — would have been cheap at the price, con­sid­er­ing what this in­ci­dent is likely to cost when the lawyers are through with ev­ery­body.

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