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United’s PR fiasco

Yesterday, United Airlines had a man forcibly removed from a plane after he refused to voluntarily leave an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville. Numerous incidents of the video are available online and they are harrowing:

Audra Bridges gave her account of the incident to the Courier-Journal:

Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday. Passengers were allowed to board the flight, Bridges said, and once the flight was filled those on the plane were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats, Bridges said, and the offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered.

Then, she said, a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted.

Bridges said the man became “very upset” and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, Bridges said, and the man said he was calling his lawyer. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane.

In response to the backlash, United issued this statement:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.

From Buzzfeed’s story, we glimpse the kafkaesque nightmare of trying to get a straight answer from authorities:

When asked why the airline had the man forcibly removed, and whether that was standard procedure in cases of overbooked flights, United refused to comment. Instead they told BuzzFeed News all further questions should be referred to Chicago Police. BuzzFeed News contacted Chicago Police and were told to contact the Chicago Department of Aviation. When BuzzFeed News contacted the Chicago Department of Aviation they were transferred to a TSA message bank. A TSA spokesperson later told BuzzFeed News they were not involved and to contact Chicago Police.

Aside from making me literally afraid to ever fly United again, this situation also makes me reflect on how United could’ve handled things better. The optics are horrible — United literally put customer needs behind the needs of its own employees.

Firstly, United could’ve increased the amount for the voucher offer until someone accepted it. Sure, $2000 of vouchers is a high price to pay, but this incident will likely cost them tens if not hundreds of times that amount in lost time/resources and negative PR.

Secondly, they could’ve had a better response and explanation for how this all went down immediately. This is a “call the leadership team together” kind of moment for any company, but their statement feels woefully inadequate. I anticipate we will get an update soon from the PR department about how this decision was made, and what will be done to prevent future similar incidents.

Finally, forcibly removing someone should never have been an option in the first place. It is demeaning and dangerous.

Side note: It’s been a rough PR month for United.

UPDATE: United’s CEO has issued this response: