Anyone who’s turned on the news or logged onto Twitter in the last week probably knows about United Airlines’ most recent controversy.
Passengers on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY watched as an older Asian man was violently removed from his seat to clear a spot for airline staff because the flight had been overbooked.
Though it’s not uncommon for airlines to overbook flights, it’s unusual to have someone removed using force.
A passenger stated that the airline offered $400 and a free hotel room to anyone who would volunteer to leave the plane, adding that when no one offered, the amount became $800.
When no passengers took United up on its offer, the airline randomly selected four passengers to get off of the plane. When the man informed airline staff he was a doctor and needed to get to the hospital the next day and refused to get off the plane, security staff dragged him out of his seat, causing the man to bleed from the mouth.
It was later reported that the man also ran back on to the plane after officers removed him.
Many in the public relations world would call this a “PR nightmare.” As a strategic communications major, it’s easy for me to recognize what United’s first move towards redemption with the public should be – a quick, timely and sincere apology.
This is the opposite of what CEO Oscar Munoz first issued on April 10, just one day after the incident.
In short, Munoz’s apology was criticized for its awkward and impersonal wording.
In a written apology issued on United’s Twitter, Munoz was quoted as saying, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
Many agreed that his wording downplayed the extremity of the situation and that the company wasn’t taking responsibility for its actions.
Later, Munoz issued a far more cohesive and organized apology two days after the event, detailing plans to change company policy.
But unfortunately, timing is everything in the public relations field.
Though United Airlines is unlikely to completely go out of business, it has lost a significant amount of customers, especially in China.
“The bookings for routes between China and the United States and United’s China market share will certainly decline,” said Shanghai AtComm Consulting President and Partner Shirley King.
King also remarked that United has, “completely destroyed their brand image.”
With an impending lawsuit from David Dao, the man dragged from the plane, United’s share of bad press is far from over.
While United may recover in the short term, it’s likely that this controversy – along with other recent controversies surrounding its brand – will have a lasting impact on its reputation.