United faces public-relations fiasco over dragged passenger

United Airlines
United Airlines (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

United is getting pummeled on late-night TV. Online, jokers are proposing new corporate slogans such as “We’ll drag you all over the world” and “We have red eye and black eye flights available.” On Wall Street, the airline briefly lost nearly $1 billion in market value before its stock regained much of the loss.

The cellphone video of airport police dragging a 69-year-old passenger off an overbooked flight has become a public-relations fiasco for United, with travel and PR experts saying the airline fumbled the situation from the start and made matters worse with a tone-deaf apology from the CEO.

It’s too soon to know whether Sunday night’s incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport will cause lasting harm. Many travelers go for the cheapest fare, no matter what the name on the plane. And United frequent flyers won’t easily give up their miles.

Then again, there are those videos of the man being yanked out of his seat and pulled down the aisle on his back as other passengers gasped.

“That is the craziest act I’ve ever seen. Who drags a ticketed passenger off an airplane?” said Bruce Rubin, a longtime practitioner of crisis public relations in Miami. “Because it’s so visual and it’s so unnecessary, it’s the kind of thing that can hurt United long-term.”

Just two weeks ago, United was at the center of another PR furor after a gate agent in Denver barred two girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings.

United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized on Monday for the latest incident but also blamed the passenger for not obeying when airline employees asked him to leave. Munoz called the man “disruptive and belligerent.”

On Tuesday, Munoz offered a stronger mea culpa for the “truly horrific event,” saying, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.” He promised a review of airline policies by April 30 and vowed to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

Jim Corridore, an airline analyst for CFRA Research, said after “poorly handling a PR disaster,” United’s CEO “is finally saying the right things.”

The man hauled off the plane, David Dao, a doctor from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, had been told along with three other passengers to give up their seats so that four employees of the company operating the flight for United could board. Dao was the only one to refuse.

To make room on the plane, United had tried to entice volunteers with travel vouchers worth $800 and a hotel room. When there were no takers, a United manager went on board and announced that four people would be removed.

Big mistake, say the crisis-management experts. Everyone wondered why United didn’t simply sweeten the offer until four passengers agreed to get off.

“A few dollars could have solved this problem,” said Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting in New York. “Instead, the damage of the brand will be millions of dollars.”

United said passengers were already seated when the four employees of Republic Airline showed up at the gate and insisted on boarding the plane to Louisville, Kentucky, so that they could operate a flight the next morning.

United is “within their rights to take someone off the plane, but this problem is totally the creation of United,” said Charles Leocha, a passenger-rights advocate in Washington. “For them to wait after the (passengers) boarded before they say, ‘Sorry, you have to get off'” is inexcusable.

The online storm began immediately after the first video was posted online. Memes mocking United sprouted like flight delays during a thunderstorm. Some jokers created images of a bat-wielding villain from “The Walking Dead” patrolling the aisle on a United plane.

Munoz, who just last month was named PR Week’s “Communicator of the Year,” was vilified.

On ABC, comedian Jimmy Kimmel launched his show with a five-minute takedown of United, mocking Munoz for saying the airline had to “re-accommodate” customers — industry jargon for putting people on later flights. Kimmel showed the dragging video and likened the man’s “re-accommodation” to the capture and extradition of Mexican drug lord El Chapo.

“That is such sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak,” Kimmel said.

Munoz is a former railroad CEO who took the top job at United in September 2015 but was sidelined for months by a heart attack and transplant. After returning, Munoz set out to improve an airline that had lagged behind its rivals financially and disappointed passengers with computer outages and canceled flights.

United has made progress at repairing labor relations and is rebuilding its route network. Still, United ranked eighth out of the 12 biggest U.S. airlines — behind Delta, JetBlue and Southwest among others — in 2016 on-time performance, customer complaints and other measures.

The stock of parent United Continental Holdings Inc. plunged 4.4 percent Tuesday morning but recovered and was off 1.4 percent shortly before the closing bell.

Richard Levick, a crisis-PR consultant in Washington, said Munoz and his airline responded poorly once the story dominated social media, just as they seemed to do during the leggings incident.

“It doesn’t matter if United Airlines followed their rules,” Levick said. “They are really beginning to become the brand that people think we should not fly.”

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Business Writer Joseph Pisani in New York contributed to this report.

David Koenig can be reached at: http://twitter.com/airlinewriter