The Dallas Morning News
Incident not so funny for United
Late-night TV, social media can’t resist jokes
United Airlines is getting pummeled online and on late-night TV over an incident in which a ticketed passenger was dragged off the plane.
United is getting pummeled on late-night TV. Online, jokers are proposing corporate slogans such as “We’ll drag you all over the world” and “We have redeye and black-eye flights available.” On Wall Street, the airline briefly lost nearly $1 billion in market value before its stock regained much of the loss.
Cellphone videos of airport police yanking a 69-year-old passenger out of his seat and
dragging him down the aisle have become a public relations nightmare for United. Travel and PR experts say the airline fumbled the situation from the start and made matters worse with a tone-deaf apology from the CEO.
It’s too soon to know whether Sunday night’s incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport will cause lasting harm. United frequent fliers won’t easily give up their miles. Many travelers aren’t attached to a particular airline and just take the cheapest fare.
Then again, there are those videos.
“That is the craziest act I’ve ever seen. Who drags a ticketed passenger off an airplane?” said Bruce Rubin, a longtime practitioner of crisis public relations in Miami. “Because it’s so visual and it’s so unnecessary, it’s the kind of thing that can hurt United long term.”
Lawyers for the passenger in the videos, David Dao, a doctor from Elizabethtown, Ky., said Tuesday that he was being treated in a Chicago hospital. They gave no further details on his injuries.
Just two weeks ago, United was at the center of another PR furor after a gate agent in Denver barred two girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings. The girls were flying on an employee pass, which comes with a stricter dress code.
United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized Monday for the latest incident but blamed the passenger for not obeying when airline employees asked him to leave. Munoz called the man “disruptive and belligerent.”
Munoz, who just last month was named PR Week’s Communicator of the Year, was vilified.
The online storm began immediately after the first video was posted online. Memes mocking United sprouted like flight delays in a thunderstorm.
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel launched his show with a fiveminute takedown of United, mocking Munoz for saying the airline had to “re-accommodate” customers —jargon for putting people on later flights. Kimmel showed the dragging video and likened the man’s “re-accommodation” to the capture and extradition of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman
On Tuesday, Munoz offered a stronger mea culpa, saying, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.” He promised a review of airline policies by April 30 and vowed to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
Dao and three other passengers had been told to give up their seats for four employees traveling to another flight they were due to work. Dao was the only one to refuse.
United had tried to entice volunteers with travel vouchers worth $800 and a hotel room. When there were no takers, a United manager went on board and announced that four people would be removed.
Big mistake, say the crisis management experts. Everyone wondered why United didn’t sweeten the offer until four people agreed to get off.
“A few dollars could have solved this problem,” said Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting in New York. “Instead, the damage of the brand will be millions of dollars.”