United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm

In the aftermath of what appeared to be visibly heavy-handed action in forcibly removing a passenger from its flight in an overbooked situation (see Fly the friendly skies: Not with United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017), United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm when its CEO Oscar Munoz’s asserted that he stood behind his staff who had “followed established procedures.”

Courtesy Reuters

In a letter to staff, Mr Munoz wrote: “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

The social media reacted quickly to lampoon Mr Munoz, with calls to boycott United and jokes about the airline’s policy to “re-accommodate” customers as its motto. It subverted an initial apology into a non-apology, and for not recognizing the way the passenger was treated and its use of force. The passenger, a doctor, was later pictured with blood on his face.

Suddenly air travellers are realizing that they may be booted from a flight event though they had paid for a confirmed seat, and through no fault of theirs. So it’s safer to bet on a more reliable airline and one which will treat you with some respect and dignity in the odd chance of this happening, and memory is a powerful guide.

Mr Munoz had underestimated the reach of the adverse publicity, not only in the United States but across the globe. Its stock fell four per cent in early trading.

While there is comfort in the US Department of Transportation’s commitment to “protecting the rights of consumers” as it looked into the matter, it is time that United and other airlines re-examine the antiquated practice of overbooking. Granted that there may be times when this cannot be helped, there had to be a better way of handling the situation.

To be fair, airlines that find the need to “re-accommodate” their passengers do normally offer some form of compensation in cash or credits or other perks, and there are customers who are quite happy to chance upon the small “windfall”. Airlines cannot ignore the genuine nightmare when one’s plans are disrupted, and the cost of that consequence may be higher than the compensation. Yet one wonders if United had upped the compensation for the said flight, there might be a taker.

By sheer pressure of the negative public reaction, United Airlines said it would review its policies with Mr Munoz now admitting “no one should ever be mistreated this way.” There are lessons to learn, and the airline will communicate the results of its review by the end of the month.

The unfortunate incident has renewed the constant call by consumer groups for protection of their rights. The US, Canada and the European Union have enacted laws that penalize airlines for misrepresenting fares, and that require them to compensate customers for denied boarding, flight cancellations and delays, and baggage mishandlings amongst other things – such events that are within an airline’s control. Unfortunately, enforcement has often been stifled by cumbersome and unwieldy procedures, contentious debate and the lack of resources for monitoring. But we remain optimistic.


About Dingzi
Writer by passion, with professional expertise in aviation, customer service and creative writing. Aviation veteran, author, editor and management consultant. Besides commentary on business issues and life-interest topics, travel stories and book reviews, genres include fiction, poetry and plays. Nature lover who abhors cruelty of any form to animals, and a tireless traveler. Above all, a dreamer.

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