Is your company prepared to respond to a public relations disaster in the information age? Or would it likely make a bad situation worse through a ham handed and tone deaf response? Unfortunately for United Airlines, we know the answer. The good news is that we can all learn from their recent abysmal performance.

Of course, I am speaking of the recent forced removal of a passenger from United flight 3411, bound from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, KY. Media reports that the flight was overbooked are inaccurate. If that had been the case, these passengers would probably have never been allowed to board the plane, and the “call for volunteers” would have likely occurred at the gate. The forced removal we’ve all witnessed would have never happened, as some passengers simply would’ve been denied boarding. Instead, this plane was full, and at the last minute a United flight crew that had to be in Louisville for a flight the next morning unexpectedly showed up at the gate. They had to be on this flight, or the flight the next day would be in jeopardy.

This set the stage for what has become a highly controversial incident. Passengers, with boarding passes (in an overbook situation some would not have had seat assignments), had been checked in and provided access to the plane. They were in their seats and ready to go. United offered $400 plus lodging and re-booking for anyone agreeing to vacate their seat. There were no takers. They upped the offer to $800, plus “re-accomodation”. Still no takers. That is when the airline reverted to the fine print of their contract-of-carriage, and determined that four paying passengers had to go. They were selected by computer (my guess is that it was based on lowest fare or last booked). Three went willingly. One did not. He was apparently mad as hell, and wasn’t going to take it anymore.

I, like many, was appalled to see the video of the man grabbed and forcibly removed from the plane. His bloodied and dazed return to the craft, wandering the aisle muttering “I have to get home, I have to get home,” was equally disturbing. But I was even more appalled at United’s tone deaf response to the original action; a response that indicates the company has not yet recognized the power of social media in the information age.

And their employees seem to have adopted the same protective, “circle the wagons” response, showing that the entire corporate culture likely suffers from this digital myopia.

First, the CEO issued an incredibly lame response, saying they “regretted having to re-accommodate these passengers.” Then they shifted the focus and blame on to the passenger. He was disruptive and belligerent. He didn’t follow their rules.

Then we were told that United didn’t do this, airport aviation personnel roughed him up and dragged him out; as if the airlines previous actions (like calling those authorities) had nothing to do with it. Finally, we were told that this isn’t really United at all, as the flight was being operated under contract by Republic Airways. Blame them, not United, is what some employee groups are saying.

If you believe that last one, I suppose it means United is not bound to their contracts like the passengers are to theirs. They should check the fine print. In the age of instant information, allowing companies to operate under your name means you own the negative situations they create. 

Then the smear campaign began. The passenger has a drug conviction and a suspended medical license. He uses two last names. A video of him arguing with authorities and challenging them to remove him surfaced. None of this – repeat, NONE of this – is relevant to the initial decision to remove a paying passenger to accommodate an employee, and it did not play well in the public eye.

As I mentioned, United employees seemed to follow their company’s lead in lockstep. There have been several blog posts by said employees blaming and lambasting the passenger for not following their rules. I had personal interactions at this level as well.

I have an old high school friend who has spent an entire career as a United Airlines Flight Attendant. While we have not spoken in many years, we connected last year on Facebook. Her posts are often very introspective and ethereal, always wishing peace and wellness and using far too many heart and flower emoji’s. That changed with this incident. We started seeing posts of articles highlighting the passenger’s questionable past. She made many comments blaming him for the incident, saying he “broke many laws and rules” and that people “did not understand our policies”. She also indicated there was far more to this story, but the media had not accurately reported it. She even posted an article that told us United isn’t the worst airline when it comes to overbooking. That honor apparently belongs to Southwest Airlines. It was almost as if any of this actually mattered or excused the incident millions have now witnessed.

I responded to her “Southwest Airlines is worse” post with the following comment:

Interesting. I just read the article you posted. As a regular Southwest flyer (90% of the 85,000 miles I logged in the air last year were on Southwest – just 2,000 on United), I’ve heard many calls for people to voluntarily give up their seat for an overbooked flight. I’ve never seen a paying customer bloodied and dragged from their seat like a dog to make room for an employee. And, as the article you posted points out, this particular flight was not overbooked. It was full, but then had to accommodate four deadheading employees. 

We can talk about rules, and laws, and safe conveyance and the difference between a contract and a seat, but the core underlying issue here is service and respect for your customer. Had the company respected their passengers enough to honor their commitment to them, this would not have happened. Had the company been concerned with service over process, and had simply upped the offer to deplane (I’ve heard Delta offers of up to $1500 plus lodging and fare), this would not have happened. 

Air travel has become commoditized, and is very challenging today. Stress levels are high. People are growing weary of being handled like cattle. To be fair, we’ve also seen a decline in decorum and behavior of the passengers. In this environment, everything an airline can do to serve people with respect will help raise the bar for all.

The company lost almost $300,000,000 in stock value in a single day over this incident. They are the subject of the most brutal internet meme assault I think I have ever seen. It is a story that will become a case study in business management classes all over the world. Yet, the tendency for the company and employees to continually smear and blame the paying customer for not responding properly to THEIR INITIAL ACTION tells me that United corporate culture is severely damaged, and poorly prepared to survive in today’s information age. 

They would be much better off in this case trying to learn a lesson rather than teach a lesson.

And her response? She told me that, “People can write until the cows come home but WE at United are standing tall and proud as WE know more to this story. We also understand how this industry operates. Many don’t, which comes through w/their responses.”

And that, my friends, was the most revealing and clarifying moment for me regarding what may be the ingrained corporate culture at United Airlines. Hey, “we” know how the industry operates, so stuff it. We have a Contract of Carriage, so stuff it. We have rules and procedures, so stuff it if you cannot understand them.

To a large degree, she is right; we don’t know their industry. And that is the very crux of the problem for them. In the information driven age of social media, we only know what we see, what we see drives our perception, and our perception becomes our reality. Even if John Q. Public doesn’t know the full story, the company must effectively deal with the story John Q. Public knows. That is something the response from United Airlines and their employees demonstrates they do not yet comprehend. 

Telling us the passenger was a bad man 10 years ago is a laughable attempt at deflection, and an intellectually dishonest attempt to escape blame for decisions made by the company. We may or may not be poorly informed, but we are certainly not stupid.

Could a similar incident happen at your company? Here in the workers’ comp industry, the foundation for potentially negative outcomes is often laid before we barely get involved. If an employee in your company compounds a problem and creates a social media backlash, what would your response be? Would you be open, approachable and transparent? Or would you blame, obscure and deflect?

At United, the easiest solution would be to not have experienced this problem. The first solution might have been better scheduling for that flight crew who needed seats. If an unexpected incident caused a crew change and a needed last minute accommodation, recognizing that you are inflicting serious inconvenience and hardship to some of your paying customers would have helped avoid this. The offer for volunteers could have increased to $1,000, and then $1,500 dollars. It would become an auction of sorts, with some passengers not biting at any price. But some would, and holding out for the next level might mean losing the offer on the table before you. It sounds expensive, but, trust me, creating happy customers is much cheaper in the long run. Delta Airlines apparently gets this concept. They just increased their overbook compensation limits to almost $10,000.

Failing all that, however, they were left with one hell of a public relations mess. Watching them willingly fall into the pit and wallow in the mud is not a pretty sight. They chose process and protocol over service and respect, and they are paying a tremendous price for that choice.

Because as bad as the forced removal was to see, it is the self-inflicted wounds of an outdated and misfocused corporate culture that are going to leave a permanent mark.


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