In the days following 9th April 2017, United Airlines Inc., the fourth-largest airline by fleet size and the number of routes faced one of its worst PR crisis ever. As Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

A great deal of transition developed in business objectives worldwide as we set foot in the era of technology. Apart from the profit motive, corporates started emphasizing societal benefits, consumer satisfaction, and Public Relations (PR) Management. While there may nevertheless be few industry leaders who still don’t weigh the significance of PR Management that high, those who have experienced a crisis are unquestionably aware of its adverse effects. A PR crisis can turn out as a nightmare scenario that can dethrone well-known market share leaders. A century-long brand image, reputation, trust, and consumer satisfaction can be washed off in a single incident. Even worse for some businesses, the start of a PR crisis might trigger their end. 

The rise of social media, influencers, and blogging has shaped the PR landscape over the previous decade. Public Relations (PR) refers to a strategic communication practice of building brand reputation and mutually beneficial relationships with the public by spreading positive information about the company. A PR crisis can take place due to faults in operations and business, insensitive remarks, and shortcoming in demand satisfaction. Therefore, conglomerates nowadays prepare a crisis management strategy to avoid such crisis. 

DESCRIPTION OF THE INCIDENT 

There’s a common practice whereby airlines sell more tickets than available seats based on the past stats of no-shows and if the flight gets full they offer compensation in return. The trouble on 9th April 2017, set about due to a policy of airlines that allows it to stop passengers from boarding their flight if it’s overbooked. The part of the problem is that we agree with this policy while booking our tickets. Four crew members were required to board United Express Flight 3411 to Louisville from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago so that they can work another flight scheduled the next day which would have got cancelled otherwise. 

Initially, an offer of US$ 400 was given to those willing to volunteer for the subsequent flight 21 hours later but upon lack of acceptance, it was increased to US$ 800. Since none volunteered, four passengers were selected forcibly. While three left immediately, 69 years old Vietnamese-American Dr. David Dao refused to leave citing his appointments the next day. A conflict arose between four members of the Chicago Department of Aviation Security and Dr. Dao and he was dragged out of the aircraft mercilessly that resulted in several injuries to his mouth and head, a broken nose, and minor concussions. Passengers onboard filmed the entire incident and circulated it online triggering the PR crisis. One of the videos went viral with more than 7 million views in a day and a social media storm followed leading to outrage and unwelcoming trends from all around the world.

RESPONSE OF THE AIRLINE

It’s crucial to understand where things went wrong for United Airlines. Even more than the incident itself, the response of Mr. Oscar Munoz (CEO of United Airlines: 2015-May 2020) was the troubling part and the fuel to the fire. His first response on 10th April was an apology to “re-accommodate customers” and didn’t mention any use of force or Dr. Dao’s injury. It turned out to be a very tone-deaf response from the “Communicator of The Year” by PRWeek and backfired as people felt the lack of empathy in his apology.  Later an internal email sent to airline employees surfaced online that defended the response of the crew and called the passenger with a bloodied face, “disruptive and belligerent” despite him being very polite. 

People started sharing images of their ripped loyalty cards, criticized the 94 year old airline for its response, vowed to boycott it, and expressed their fear. The U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the airline and referred its treatment of Dr. Dao as “horrible”. The airline itself complicated the situation by contradicting its previous statement saying that neither the flight was overbooked or oversold, nor was force used against Dr. Dao. This incident with Dr. Dao took place two weeks post the incident where the airlines’ slogan “Fly with Friendly Skies” was targeted for barring two teenage girls wearing leggings to board a flight. In another incident in 2018, a passenger’s dog died after the airline forced to keep the bag that had a dog in it in the overhead cabin. Such incidents have weakened consumer confidence in the airline. 

RECOVERY FROM THE CRISIS

Such incidents when revisited in social media, can create outrage even years later. It is imperative to understand that transparency, accuracy, and consistency play a crucial role in post-crisis and recovery period. It wasn’t until a few days after the incident that Mr. Munoz gave a full-fledged apology taking full responsibility, promising to “do better”, calling the episode “truly horrific” and adding that “No one should be treated this way”. He pledged to conduct a review of the matter and release the report by 30th April. His acceptance helped United’s parent company’s crashing stock price to recover from the initial loss of nearly US$ 1 Billion. Munoz then appeared on Good Morning America and issued another apology. The airlines reiterated its apologies, confirmed that law enforcement will not be used to remove passengers unless for safety reasons, and changed its overbooking policy. Apart from this, the airlines provided compensation worth the cost of their tickets to all passengers on Flight 3411 and fired two security officers involved. On 27th April 2017, Dr. Dao and United Airlines reached a confidential settlement.

Several policy changes were then announced by the airline to ensure customer satisfaction and better service. Public Relations Professionals believe that United could have handled the situation well by making a quick move and being genuinely apologetic from the beginning. Although the later response was highly appreciative, a PR crisis plan and loyal customer base plays important role in combating such a crisis. With time, customer sentiment improved from the lows of April 2017 the airlines recovered from their PR Crisis. Years of service and policy changes certainly played a role in its recovery.

CONCLUSION

While thousands of voluntary customer swaps occur daily, 46000 travelers were involuntarily bumped from flights in 2015 alone according to data from the Department of Transportation of the United States. This is a common practice by airline companies to increase their revenue. United Airlines could have prevented the crisis through simple crisis management approach, investment in social monitoring tools and quick response. It’s imperative to understand that during a crisis, every second is important. Sometimes, a positive and decent apology from the company head does the work. Aviation analysts believe that the incident had a negligible effect on the demand of the airlines. While it recovered from the PR crisis, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll. It will be interesting to analyze how it overcomes this global crisis. 

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