What a drag: How United turned a $1,000 inconvenience into a hundreds-of-millions crisis

A passenger being dragged screaming and bleeding from a plane, nosediving stock prices and an underwhelming initial apology by the CEO of United Airlines have added up to a PR nightmare and then some for the carrier whose slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies.”

Tallying the costs of the blunder, however, is no easy task.

The Chicago-based airline’s stock lost $250 million in value Tuesday. As a bonus, United (NYSE: UAL) torpedoed its brand, cost itself untold current and future customers, and may face legal action, for starters.

A problem that could have been solved by offering more money for passengers to take another flight escalated into a much more expensive crisis, said Merrie Spaeth, founder and president of Dallas-based strategic consulting and crisis communication firm Spaeth Communications Inc.

“It’s as if they missed PR 101,” Spaeth told the Dallas Business Journal. “They also missed Capitalism 101. It’s as if they totally took leave of common sense.”

By law, airlines do not have to pay more than 400 percent of the value of a passenger’s ticket, up to $1,350, when they bump someone from a flight against their will. But airlines occasionally offer more to find a volunteer. United says it offered $1,000 to the passenger before he was dragged off the plane; other passengers say the offer stopped at $800.

United will have a “very, very difficult time recovering,” said Jo Trizila, founder and CEO of Dallas-based TrizCom Public Relations and Pitch PR.

“The consumer is looking at it and saying, well, this happened on their flight, it could happen on mine,” Trizila said in an interview with the DBJ.

The company put their corporate policy above concern for their passengers, and now must deal with their customers’ wrath, she said.

“There are very few endeavors in which you are putting your life in the hands of a company,” Trizila said. “Flying is one of them. If you don’t trust the airline that is taking your life in their hands, it’s hard to support that brand.”

Compounding the problem, less than a month after being named U.S. Communicator of the Year for 2017 by PRWeek, United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote a letter in which he clearly insisted that United and the employees on the scene handled the situation correctly.

"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," he wrote. "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

"Just like we re-accommodated El Chapo out of Mexico," late night host Jimmy Kimmel cracked Tuesday night.

Trizila’s two cents: “The public probably would have perceived the entire situation differently had the CEO come out Sunday night or even Monday morning saying, ‘The actions of our employees and the crew of Flight 3411 was deplorable. It was horrible. It never should have happened,’” she said. “But no, it took him until Tuesday, after his stock had fallen, after a complete meltdown on social media, and after people started asking him to resign.”

Spaeth said United similarly mishandled a less serious episode last month when two young women were denied boarding a United flight from Denver to Minneapolis after a gate agent decided the leggings the teenagers were wearing were inappropriate.

She contrasted United Airlines’ approach to that problem with the tactics that Dallas-based Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) typically takes in similarly touchy situations.

“United was slow to respond, and their response was corporate-speak rather than the kind of stuff that Southwest does, which is very real and sounds credible,” Spaeth said.

Corporate-speak didn’t work with the passenger dragging, where the stakes were higher and video was available, she added.

“These things are going to live forever (online),” she said. “They had better be planning how to counter these images which represent the worst customer service I have ever seen in my life.”

Click here to view this story in its original home on our content partner site at The Dallas Business Journal. 

 

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