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United Airlines suffers PR turbulence

Let’s face it United Airlines has form. In March of this year they were engulfed in the choppy waters of #LeggingsGate. In case you missed that one, the turmoil was caused by the airline declining to let two women on board dressed in leggings.

The people concerned were so-called pass riders; United employees or family members who travel free of charge. The airline’s dress code for such passengers indicates they should be ‘well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste’.

Miniskirts, short shorts and form-fitting lycra tops, pants and dresses (this apparently includes leggings) are not wanted on board.

This ruling was branded by some as sexist as the entire dress code seemed to be talking about women’s clothing. An airline spokesperson disputed this reading and said it was “absolutely not sexist” and “male or female, those rules apply to every pass rider.”

United breaks guitars

Looking back a little further to 2008 and United Airlines experienced some severe PR headwind when a passenger, a relatively well-known Country singer witnessed United ground staff tossing his guitars around like confetti. One expensive Taylor guitar was broken beyond repair and despite appealing for compensation from the airline for over a year he got no traction until he wrote the song: ‘United breaks guitars.’ This was a minor hit and has benefited from 17 million views on You Tube. At the time, United were repentant and said they planned to learn from their mistakes.

Pictures of passenger forcibly removed from United Airlines flight go viral

All of which brings us to the interesting activities that got underway on United Airlines Flight 3411 on Sunday 9th April. The flight was overbooked, United had to transport some of their own personnel (presumably they weren’t wearing leggings) and they asked for volunteers to travel at a later time.

Apparently, some came forward and were rewarded for doing so, but they were still one seat short. Dr David Dao was told he had to vacate the plane, declined to do so and was videoed yelling and screaming, blood smeared across his face, as security staff helped him change his mind. Inevitably other passengers shot videos of the unfolding events which went viral in minutes.

Although not confirmed it has been suggested that another passenger was prepared to leave the flight on payment of $1,000, the airline would only go to $800. So perhaps an almighty PR disaster could have been averted for the price of a good meal for two.

The initial mistake was clearly administrative, usually volunteers are sought before a plane boards and it seems extraordinary that the security officers had to be so brutal when extricating Dr Dao. The officers were not airline staff but as they were working on behalf of United there was no ducking the issue. Thereafter, the actions of the airline’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, bear examination.

Communicator of the year

Munoz recently had the accolade ‘Communicator of Year’ bestowed on him by PR Week. So how then did this great communicator respond to the battering received by one of his customers?

His initial statement apologised for having to ‘re-accommodate’ passengers. He could now win ‘Euphemism of the Year’ if there was such an award. He then labelled the passenger ‘disruptive and belligerent’ in an internal company memo and said the passenger’s removal was ‘established procedure.’ All of which begs several questions. Was he trying to be funny when talking about having to ‘re-accommodate’ passengers? Did he really think an internal memo wouldn’t go public and is dragging passengers kicking and screaming off a flight still ‘established procedure?’ And how is it that companies still underestimate the power and reach of a smart phone to first capture and then disseminate powerful content.

It took two days for Munoz to issue a full apology. On ABC’s Good Morning America he said: “I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. I promise you we will do better.” Why did it take two days to say something that could have been said in forty minutes?

How much effect all this will have on the company remains to be seen, but a brutal act perpetrated by security was compounded by a tin-eared PR response from the boss. Once they broke guitars now they seem intent on doing the same to passengers.