Behind The Headlines: United Airlines

Wednesday 12th April

United Airlines has landed in a spot of bother. Its decision to forcibly ‘re-accommodate’ a passenger due to overbooking has caused worldwide uproar, with footage of the brutal removal going viral. Sam Barnett looks at what’s happened and how the approach of an Irish budget airline might offer a better flight path.


What happened?

United Airlines were in the news this week for their mistreatment of Dr. David Dao, a passenger on Flight 3411. United overbooked the flight, meaning that they had to ask passengers to give up their seats so that staff could travel. No volunteers came forward, so four passengers were chosen ‘at random’.

One of those passengers, a Dr. Dao, refused to leave his seat, claiming he had patients that he needed to see. This resulted in security officials forcibly removing him from the plane.

Why is it important?

Normally, overbooked flights are a non-event; an infrequent nuisance that pales in comparison to the wider frustrations of 21st century flight. Airlines often overbook their planes, assuming some passengers won’t turn up. Despite this, only 0.09% of passengers were denied boarding last year, and most of these voluntarily opted not to fly.

However, this was an event. Footage of the incident has flooded the internet and it’s not pretty. Dr. Dao receives clear injuries and is humiliated as he is dragged down the aisle, seemingly unconscious.

The issue was then compounded by CEO Oscar Munoz’s confusing initial non-apology and a leaked internal letter to staff in which Munoz called Dr. Dao ‘disruptive and belligerent’. Munoz has since issued another apology, but the damage is done.

What’s the reaction been?

Loud and furious. The footage has received universal criticism from the world’s commentariat. Ellen Degneres joked that ‘Your first forcible removal is free’, The Times condemned an ‘arrogant airline’ and Piers Morgan accused United of ‘assault and battery’.

Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter) exploded with calls for a boycott of United, while Foreign Policy’s James Palmer analysed how reactions to the incident exposed further racial tensions in America. The New Statesman decided to skewer capitalism, while the Mail devoted 4,000 words to the doctor’s apparently colourful past.

The incident has dominated ‘meme culture’, with one image reimagining United’s Economy class as Fight Club.

Already the howls of the boycott brigade have cost United, with the airline’s share price sliding 3.8% – a loss of $800million in total value.

Best headline?

Sly Stallone compares violent United Airlines incident to ‘Rocky’

What’s next?

Munoz has said that he has no plans to resign, despite the furore created by his reaction to the incident.

If that is the case, then he has quite the task on his hands. United has suffered self-inflicted PR disasters in the past, having broken a man’s guitar and barred two young women in yoga pants from flying.

Munoz was recently awarded PR Week’s ‘Communicator of the Year’ for his ‘ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline’. He’ll need to use all the skills available to him now if he’s to get the public back on-board, both with his vision and his flights.

As suggested by the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair offers a useful precedent. Previously known for sharing Millwall Football Club’s ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’ approach [something I can attest to, having once seen the airline’s staff make a passenger stand for an entire flight due to overbooking], customer disillusionment and falling incomes forced the budget airline to rebrand.

It began a relentless charm offensive across its planes and press office. Ryanair’s media relations have since been immaculate – proactive in generating good news and securing status as a trusted commentator on UK issues. The company took a clear but fun position on the UK remaining in the EU and even gained headlines this year for being ‘too nice’ on baggage allowance.

The result? A spectacular rise in customer sentiment and revenue – United should take note.

Related News & Insight