By Chris Gilmour

There is no doubt United Airlines is a brand in crisis.

Since footage emerged of a passenger being forcibly removed from one of its planes, there has been an outcry.

It didn’t help that the man ended up with a bloody nose, after being dragged by the arms down the aisle of the plane, while other passengers protested.

The incident occurred because United needed four seats on its flight from Chicago to Louisville for employees – and sought volunteers to give up their places. They offered a cash incentive and a hotel room. But when not enough passengers came forward, it was decided to choose people at random.

Three of those people selected vacated their seats. One passenger refused to stay behind, and officials were called.

These are the facts.

As emotion and outcry ensues, and everyone chips in with their opinion on what the airline should have done, United has made things worse by taking four crucial missteps:

Issuing a weasel-worded apology

The public is not stupid. What exactly does “re-accommodate” mean? It sounds like lawyer-speak and is not plain English. And as apologies go, this is too wishy washy to respond to this particular crisis. Which is why the company has continued to get a roasting from the public on social media.

But just when you imagine it can’t get worse, the very same CEO sent an email to employees about the incident, which was leaked to the Press. This is where the second mistake comes in.

Putting out mixed signals

Never assume that internal communications will remain private. It’s no surprise to me that the following email - sent to staff - got into the public domain so quickly

My opinion may not be the popular one, but this second statement is the one and only statement United should have put out – and stuck to it.

If the passenger was belligerent and abusive to staff, say so up front. Don’t make a half-hearted apology, then change tack. The public won’t know which statement to believe.


Now Mr Munoz is sorry - again.

After two days of conflicting corporate statements, United Airlines went into full scale mea culpa mode.

It's CEO said in a further statement: "I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight.

"I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated in this way."

But what is he sorry for? For the overbooking situation? Or the injury to the passenger?

As far as the manner in which the guy was dragged off, the airline needs to make it clear that staff were proportionate in their response by calling security officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation.

It was not United staff who removed him. United is answerable only from a customer service standpoint, and I'm surprised they haven't made this position clear - that once the "air police" were called, what followed was out of the company's hands.

To give a little background to those who find the overbooking system deplorable, the US Department of Transportation allows airlines to overbook flights because a percentage of passengers routinely cancel at the last minute and airlines want to fill every available seat to squeeze as much revenue from each flight as possible.

In 2016, the nation’s 12 largest airlines removed 40,629 passengers involuntarily from flights, a rate of 0.62 passengers for every 10,000 fliers transported, according to the Department of Transportation. That rate is lower than the 0.73 passengers per 10,000 passengers in 2015.

United had a rate of 0.43 in 2016, according to the agency.

Bowing to pressure from the Twitterati

Sometimes a brand is going to take a kicking - and they need to stand firm and take it.

Instead, the whole situation has turned into panic and chaos that's being led by the masses.

Days later, United has made a fourth statement and announced it is refunding everyone on the aeroplane.

I would ask 'why?' Every time someone is asked to leave a flight - and makes a fuss about it - is the airline going to give all passengers their money back? This sets a dangerous precedent.

News reports claim Dr Dao is filing a lawsuit against the airline. But footage has emerged of him clearly telling the security officer "you'll have to drag me" and saying that he will "make a lawsuit" against United.

This takes us back to the second statement made by the airline. Had Munoz stuck with this position and supported the actions of his staff, stating the passenger was belligerent, this latest footage would seem to support his assertion.

Has anyone sat back and thought what the company wants to achieve? I'm struggling to understand what outcome the brand is aiming for.

What seems to have been lost here is the fact that when an airline - and then the police - requests you leave an aeroplane, the law requires you to do so.

United did not drag him off the plane - they need to answer only for the issue of overbooking. 

United has made the mistake of thinking its first response should be to say “sorry” – before the brand has an understanding of the full situation and what led up to the distressing footage.

And again it has panicked and apologised after its share price dropped and social media went crazy.

Companies need to assess when it’s necessary to come out fighting, and resist bowing to the pressure of public outcry. Emotion should not come into it.

A brand under attack in this way should thoroughly assess what happened, decide its position, and then stand firm.

From a crisis communications point of view, my advice to United would have been to make its position clear about policy for dealing with disruptive passengers – and take the heat.

Because backing down to one guy will set a precedent in the future, for passengers to make as much noise as possible if they are not getting what they want.

Ironically, United's CEO Oscar Munoz, who took over last September, was named PR communicator of the year by PR Week last month, who called him "a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications".

Lessons need to be learned from this latest debacle, or he won’t be winning any awards of this kind in the future.

United could have given a clearer, factual response to this crisis. There is room for transparency - about what could have been done better and how the airline will work to improve its service.

But sticking to the facts and being consistent is key if a brand hopes to climb out of any PR disaster of this scale.


We are experts in crisis management. Call 0800 612 9890 and learn how we can take care of your business.