Part II: Flying the Unfriendly Skies
By Nick Guadagnino
Air travel in the 1950s and 1960s was a luxury experience. It was a golden age—one that made passengers feel like kings and queens. It had style, it had elegance. But in the 60 years that followed, a sea change occurred. The glitz and glamour disappeared and the royal treatment faded into what we now recognize as “coach.” Leg space shrunk and baggage fees skyrocketed. And for many travelers, customer service seemed to become a thing of the past.
We’re sure Dr. David Dao agrees, at least when it comes to his experience with United Airlines.
Not sure who Dr. Dao is? Well, let me refresh your memory.
April 9, 2017
On Sunday, April 9—five days after the debut of the Pepsi commercial I discussed in my previous blog post—Dr. Dao boarded United Airlines Flight 3411 with service to Louisville, Kentucky. Everyone was already seated when an announcement came over the loudspeaker alerting passengers that four people needed to be removed to accommodate staff members who were needed to cover an understaffed flight at another location.
What followed caused public outrage, with one survey indicating that only 21% of people would choose to fly United now if given the option.
Vouchers were offered (twice) along with tickets aboard a flight leaving almost 24 hours later, but no takers volunteered. A manager then boarded the plane and informed everyone that four people would be randomly selected by a computer for involuntary removal. Three of the selected individuals agreed to leave, but the fourth—Dr. David Dao—refused, claiming he needed to see patients the next day at his clinic. A struggle ensued, with other passengers capturing footage of the conflict and posting it on social media, resulting in more than 6 million views in less than a day.
A horrible experience, to say the least. But what’s done is done, and the ball was now in United’s court. They had a crisis on their hands and needed to respond in a timely and humanistic way. The response(s) were timely- but cold and robotic.
The first response came the day of the incident, when United issued a statement that said Flight 3411 had been “overbooked”, and they apologized for the overbook situation. Two days later, United clarified that the flight had not been overbooked, but rather sold out.
The second response came on April 10, when United CEO Oscar Munoz issued the following statement:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
“Re-accommodate” proved to be a poorly chosen word, as the company received further ridicule and criticism following this statement. Later that same day, Munoz sent an email to employees, praising the crew’s actions and claiming Dr. Dao had been “disruptive and belligerent.” The email leaked online and was met with even greater criticism-and a petition calling for Munoz’s resignation.
Exhausting, right? How can a company as big as United handle a crisis so poorly? It wasn’t until April 11, a full two days after the incident, that United started to get its act together. In another public statement, Munoz showed more empathy, calling the situation “truly horrific” and taking full responsibility.
Several compensations and policy changes stemmed from this statement, including $500 United vouchers for passengers aboard Flight 3411. But on April 27, United Airlines and Dr. Dao reached a confidential settlement, and that same day the airline announced 10 policy changes, including an increase in the maximum amount of travel vouchers offered to “bounced” passengers to up to $10,000, and a promise to reduce overbooking on future flights.
Unlike Pepsi a few days prior, United Airlines’ handling of the crisis caused serious damage. Although stock prices remained level, members of Congress were called upon to make new legislation that would give flight passengers more rights and prevent similar incidents from occurring. The worst comes from a poll issued by Morning Consult, which indicated that 79% of prospective fliers who had heard of the incident would choose a non-United Airlines flight, while 44% would choose a non-United flight despite having to pay up to $66 more and enduring an additional three hours of travel time.
In other words, people were furious. Had United handled the situation differently—specifically, by taking responsibility right from the start rather than issuing cold, corporate-sounding statements—the public’s outrage perhaps wouldn’t have been so severe. But that’s not how things panned out, and it’s safe to say that the incident on Flight 3411 will be used as a crisis communications case study—a what-not-to-do example—for years to come.
The poorly worded messages of United Airlines, surprisingly enough, wouldn’t be the last ones the public endured this week… Check back as we wrap up the Nightmare on PR Street trilogy and explain why it’s best to leave Hitler’s name out of press conferences.