United Airlines’ public relations disaster at O’Hare Airport

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A United Airlines passenger plane lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2015 in Newark, N.J. Twitter users are poking fun at United’s tactics in having a man removed from an overbooked Chicago to Louisville flight on April 9. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

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For a company in the business of serving customers, United Airlines seemed shockingly clueless after a boarded passenger was forcibly removed Sunday at O’Hare Airport so the airline could give his seat to someone else.

Video went viral showing the bloodied man, David Dao, being dragged from Flight 3411, striking a chord with a flying public leery of arcane airline rules, bad customer service and overbooking policies.

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United should have rushed to reassure those people — their customers. Instead, from the top down, airline representatives acted like public relations novices. Rather than promptly apologizing profusely and expressing an abiding care for its customers, United criticized the passenger, offered a phony “overbooking” excuse and trotted out legalese that made no one feel any better.

Where were their public relations pros? Were they stuck in an airport somewhere, trying to get “re-accommodated” on a trip home? Where were the image crafters who came up with the iconic “Fly the friendly skies of United”? It’s as though the airline wanted Saturday Night Live to stop doing White House skits and turn to United instead.

On Sunday, United was trying to clear space on a Chicago-to-Louisville, Kentucky,  flight for four employees of a partner airline who needed to get to Louisville. The airline offered inducements that went up to $1,000, according to United, but none of the boarded passengers volunteered to leave the plane. Four passengers, including Dao, were told to exit the plane for rebooking. Dao refused. Chicago aviation police dragged him away.

Last month, the airline weathered a social media storm after two teenage girls flying for free on employee passes were not allowed to board because they were wearing leggings. At that time, the airline hastened to point out that its paying customers were welcome to wear whatever they want.

That dust-up should have made United wary of getting another public relations black eye. But in his first statement about the O’Hare incident, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines’ parent company, said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” without apologizing to Dao. Then, in an email sent Monday evening to employees, Munoz wrote, “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” and said the passenger “became more and more disruptive and belligerent.”

Apparently, he didn’t understand airline customers would side with the boarded passenger, who had bought a ticket, and not with the airline’s right to evict whomever they choose by “random selection.” No one explained why four airline employees showed up without notice, needing seats that already were occupied by fare-paying passengers.

It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Munoz said, “No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

By then, United had seen its stock price head downward, potential passengers in its important market in China siding with Dao, American comedians having a field day and the public reacting with fury.

Airlines overbook partly because some people don’t show up on time at the airport and expect to use their tickets for later flights. Usually, the inducements gate personnel offer are sufficient to persuade volunteers to give up their seats. Telling passengers with tickets they won’t be given a seat is rare — United did it in 2016 to only 0.0004 percent of its 86 million passengers on oversold flights, according to the New York Times.

Airlines also operate in a high-pressure environment in which a late departure at one airport can cascade into a scheduling nightmare around the country.

The flying public understands flights will be delayed or canceled by weather or mechanical problems. They know there will be times when an expected flight home turns into an extended delay amid turmoil at a crowded airport. But they want to feel the airline is on their side, doing its best. They don’t want aviation musical chairs, where someone is left without a seat. They don’t expect to be dragged bodily off their flight.

In his Tuesday afternoon message, Munoz said, “I promise you we will do better.”

He should have said that from the start.

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