The unfriendly skies
United Airlines learns an expensive lesson in customer care
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.