United Airlines PR Faux Pas


In case you’ve been living under a rock these past couple of days and have somehow missed the United Airlines PR debacle, I’ll quickly run you through the details.

At the start of the week numerous videos went viral, they depicted three burly airport security officers physically dragging a screaming passenger off United Airlines Flight 3411 – leaving him bloodied and bruised… and causing a catastrophic PR nightmare in its wake.

To add insult to injury (quite literally in this case), the violent removal took place because the airline itself had overbooked the flight from Chicago to Louisville, which has certainly played a part in leaving United Airline’s PR team red faced.

3 Ways It Went Wrong for United Airlines

In situations like these it’s often a comedy of errors rather than a one-off mistake that leads to a PR migraine.

First of all, it’s important to know that airlines are allowed, and often, overbook flights to account for no-shows. However, after filling their seats adequately, United Airlines staff were informed that the flight required four seats to transport employees. The crew asked for volunteers to give up their seats in return for £800 and a seat on another flight; (but let’s be real, after the hassle of arriving early, checking-in, getting your luggage checked, going through security and then boarding – are you really going to give up your seat?).

While this might seem like a fair deal, it was in fact their first PR faux pas, never make a customer feel inferior to another person – and never-ever-ever-ever make your customers feel inferior to your staff. This is probably the worst public relations blunder a company can make. They’re paying for a service, but also an experience, and that shouldn’t include being belittled and battered.

My next question for the United Airlines PR team: why did your staff wait until everyone had boarded the flight before asking for volunteers to leave? Had this offer been given whilst in the waiting lounge, your chances of willing volunteers would have been much higher… not to mention avoiding the whole heavy-handed debacle.

Obviously, we don’t need to tell their PR team that the use of force was excessive, and that dragging someone along the floor is a plain infringement of human rights. It’s simply never okay; especially when the technological climate means every passenger has a phone in hand to record and distribute any incident instantly. Feels like amateur hour up in here.

How the PR Migraine was Inculcated:

The real problem here is that it’s common practise for United Airlines to overbook their flights. Last year, United forced 3,765 people off of oversold flights and another 62,895 passengers volunteered to give up their seats – presumably in exchange for travel vouchers or money. While the excessive force of this incident may have been isolated, the process isn’t – and it could happen again.

Remarkably, United ranks in the middle of US carriers when it comes to bumping passengers, which is absurd when you look at the numbers. However, the PR team are resolutely defending their staff’s actions, claiming they were ‘just following procedure’ – which leads us to our next question; is it time the procedure is reconsidered?

And it just… gets… worse… Leaked emails from the CEO Oscar Munoz called the passenger in contention ‘disruptive and belligerent’, stating that he ‘emphatically stands behind all of you’ (referring to the United employees).

I can hear the PR team sighing; you don’t have to be in the industry to know that this is a public relations nightmare.

Now, the passenger in question has spoken out (turns out he’s receiving treatment in hospital, yikes), there’s various petitions in China calling for a boycott of United Airlines, and share prices have dropped so badly they’ve taken a near $1bn loss in value – it’s certainly not looking good for the carrier company.

My Advice for United Airlines

While your main service is transportation, to set yourself above competitors you need to also offer an experience.

So, if you’re manhandling customers against their will, embarrassing them in front of crowds and inconveniencing their carefully planned trip; we can safely say that’s not an experience worth paying for. In fact, we’ll guarantee they’ll not only rip your PR team to shreds, but also be blacklisting your company; (we based this on pretty solid evidence from the news right now).

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