The United Airlines Passenger Removal: How not to ‘respond’ to a PR crisis

The United Airlines Passenger Removal: How not to ‘respond’ to a PR crisis

It was a fine afternoon on 9th of April, 2017 and the United Airlines flight 3411 was all set to fly its course from O’Hara International Airport, Chicago to Louisville. Nineteen minutes before the time of departure while the sold-out flight was still at the gate, a senior official from the airlines arrived and asked four of the passengers to get down to make way for their employees to travel. The Airlines promised travel vouchers and a free stay at a hotel for the passengers who would volunteer to give up their seats. The senior official had a rather bellicose tone when she announced what was required.

When no passenger volunteered to give up their seats, the Airlines announced that the system will pick four random passengers from the on-boarded flight, who will have to give away their seats for their employees to fill in. Three of the four passengers finally gave their seats away and got off the plane.

Dr. David Dao, an Asian-American pulmonologist was one of the four chosen passengers who was set to return to his hometown to attend to his patients the next morning. He politely expressed his urgent need to go back to his hometown to the senior official to which the official toned back to call for the police to ask him to step out. He refused.

What unfolded afterward were a series of unfortunate events! The United Airlines officials sought assistance from the Chicago Department of Aviation Security. The officers and the officials dragged Dr.Dao out and he got himself injured in the process knocking himself out unconscious.

The above incident was captured by fellow passengers on cell phone cameras and it became viral on social media. Watch it for yourself!

The Social Media Crisis and United Airlines response

Some of the eye witness passengers who talked to the media reporters later expressed that it all started from the disputatious ask from the senior official who first briefed the whole scenario to the passengers on board. We often see PR crises like these where the employees step out and behave in a particular way which tends to represent the organization they belong to. Every employee of an organization is a PR agent of the organization at every stage of its functioning!

The first response that came out from the United Airlines was:


Here, if you read the lines properly the airline isn’t apologizing for the mishap that the passenger had to go through but for the overbooked situation of the flight! After the dignity of one of their customers is compromised they chose to address the fact that their flight was overbooked. This wasn’t a smart move at all if you ask me!

By April 11th 2017, United Airlines tweaked its own statement by stating that those four employees were supposed to travel via the flight urgently for work-related purpose and the flight wasn’t overbooked but rather sold-out.

This is what United CEO, Oscar Munoz released as his first statement:

United Airlines Flight 3411 Ceos statement

The social media trollers attacked this statement from Munoz for constantly advocating their act of re-accommodation. Munoz was later deprived of his promotion of becoming the chairman of the airlines following his image that circulated post the debacle.

In another statement on April 11th, 2017 Oscar expressed,

United Airlines Flight 3411 CEO Oscars revised statement

Within three days of the event, several versions of the United Airlines were released further confusing the audience on the United’s blurry opinion and thus making it obvious that they were tweaking their responses/statements right after the public feedback they were getting to the preceding version. On the other hand, a lot of eye witness passengers came upfront to the media and expressed their versions of the stories. Many of them filed lawsuits which United tried negating by the inducement of free travel vouchers.

In a poll conducted after few days of the fiasco, the consumer proclivity towards United Airlines had decreased substantially albeit their stock market numbers weren’t hampered much given their recent merger and lesser availability of options for consumers for most routes.

PRWeek US had chosen Munoz as the ”Communicator of the year 2017”, a month prior to this incident. After the events unfolded, Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of PRWeek US, quoted that “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz. In time, the episode and subsequent response will be quoted in textbooks as an example of how not to respond in a crisis.”

The United Airlines had a settlement with Dr.Dao which was never put out in the public and they went on to make some policy reforms regarding the overbooking scenario and their flight proceedings in general.

The initial set of responses from the brand/organisation under the crisis attack are very important which sets the tone for further mitigatory steps to be taken. After all, the effective start to crisis communication is an impactful first impression which is envisaged as a quick and smart response that caters to all the stakeholders.

How do you think United Airlines should have responded to this disastrous PR crisis?

Let us know in the comments section!

Raman Kumar

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