- What was the impact of the incidents described in the case on United Airlines’ reputation?
- Did these incidents impact the firm’s corporate identity or corporate image, or both, as described in the chapter?
- Did these incidents constitute a crisis, as defined in the chapter?
- Did United Airlines engage in effective crisis management, and why or why not? If you were the public relations manager at United Airlines, what steps would you have recommended the company take when these incidents occurred?
- What should the company do now to regain its customers’ trust?
Discussion Case: United Airlines—Navigating a Social Media Storm
In 2017, a United Airlines gate agent barred two girls from boarding a flight because the teenagers were wearing leggings. Passengers boarding the fight saw the commotion and began tweeting about the incident. Social media exploded, with users calling the incident “horrendous,” “outrageous,” and “nonsense.” Many questioned why United considered this clothing inappropriate, since many women passengers wear leggings, yoga and athletic apparel for comfort while traveling. United responded to the criticisms by quoting their policy: “United shall have the right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed via our Contract of Carriage.” The company statement continued, “This is left to the discretion of the agents.” Moreover, the two girls were traveling using a United employee pass and, according to the airline spokesperson, “were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel.” It was a common industry practice to expect persons using the employee benefit privilege to dress more nicely than paying passengers. United promised to review their dress code policy but indicated that they would likely remain in agreement with the industry practice regarding a dress code for passengers using company benefit travel.
A month later, United customers posted videos across multiple media outlets showing airport police dragging a passenger, Dr. David Dao, off a United Airlines flight. Dao appeared to have a bloodied face. The airline defended its actions, stating that it was customary practice to remove paying passengers on full flights so that off-duty crew members, needed at the flight’s destination, could have a seat. United reported that passengers were asked if they would voluntarily give up their seat for compensation, and three passengers agreed. But four seats were needed, so the airline moved to its next action in their protocol—asking passengers to leave the plane. Dao reportedly was asked, and when he refused, the airline instructed airport security to remove him.
Munoz immediately issued an apology, saying that it was unfortunate that sometimes “we have to re-accommodate customers.” One woman reacted to this statement by posting on Twitter, “Nice to know that re-accommodate on United now means ‘drag you violently out of your seat.’” Some Chinese social media users accused United of racism, believing that Dao was targeted since he appeared Asian. The incident also drew the attention of Congressional leaders. Four members of the Senate commerce committee said in a letter to United Airlines, “The last thing a paying airline passenger should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding, especially one that could likely have been avoided.” This incident occurred at a time when passengers were increasingly unhappy with higher airfares, as well airlines’ practice of adding on extra fees for baggage, seat reservations, and other services that once were included with the basic plane ticket.
A few hours after Munoz’s initial apology, the company seemed to go on the offensive when it circulated a letter in which Munoz appeared to blame Dao, saying he defied the officers. Finally, a few days later, the airline changed its position once again, when Munoz stated that “United would take full responsibility for the situation.” He also pledged that the company would conduct a full review of its policies in re-accommodating paid passengers to give off-duty crew members their seats and its interaction with law enforcement agencies within a few weeks. “We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again,” he said. The company subsequently issued a report stating that the incident involving Dao “was a failure of epic proportions that’s grown to this breach of public trust. We get that. We let our policies and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing.”
A few weeks later United announced that it had reached “an amicable” settlement with Dao, although the specific terms were not disclosed. The company also reported that many of its policies related to this case were revised in the hope these actions will prevent a repeat of the public relations disaster that has engulfed the company after Dao was forcibly removed from a plane. Morning Consult, a brand-tracking company, reported that shortly after Dao was dragged off the airline, United’s favorability rating dropped 47 points (on a scale from negative 100 to positive 100). This rating slowly rebounded in the days after the incident, but still lagged behind rivals American, Delta, and Southwest.
As the airline attempted to win back the public’s trust and rebound from a major drop in the company’s favorability rating, another tragic story hit social media: the news of a dog dying after being placed in an overhead cargo bin without water during a three-hour flight. One passenger said, “I heard the dog barking a little and we didn’t know it was barking a cry for help.” According to another passenger, the flight attendant who placed the bag in the bin did not know there was a dog inside the bag. Morning Consult reported that United’s favorability rating dropped 28 points when this incident became public.
United Airlines tried to reassure the public of its care and compassion. “This was a tragic accident that should have never occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin,” United said in a statement. “We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”