United creates its own airline terror by overbooking flights

Corporate crisis situations are nearly always self-inflicted. That’s correct … self-inflicted … caused by a long list of colliding procedures and incompetent policies that more often than not explode into brand image and reputation problems. United Airlines has had a string of image-damaging incidents —

  • Scottish cops handcuffed two drunken United Airlines pilots before the duo took off with 141 passengers bound for Newark Liberty International Airport from Glasgow, Scotland last August. The incident was kept under wraps until recently.
  • Another pilot on a U.S. domestic flight stood in the front of the cabin before take-off and ranted over the public address system about her divorce and politics.
  • Two girls were barred from a United flight in March because they were wearing leggings, which the company said violated its dress code for a benefit for United employees and their dependents. Critics called the policy sexist and overbearing.

The most catastrophic self-inflicted crisis for the airline’s brand image came this past Sunday, April 9. Caught on video, circulated around the world millions of times and dominating mainstream news, what happened will have lasting adverse impact and damage to the airline’s reputation that I suspect United executives have yet to grasp.

This could happen to you — A beaten, bloodied and dazed United Airlines passenger after being brutally yanked out of his airline seat and dragged off United flight 3411.

The violence on a domestic United Airlines plane — flight 3411 from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville — began after all passengers had boarded and were settled in their seats.

The problem was another overbooked flight.

Flight attendants got on the plane’s public address system and asked that four already seated passengers give-up their seats to accommodate four United employees the airline wanted to “reposition to Louisville.” The problem was that United had oversold the flight, knowing it had the right to kick people off the flight even though they had valid tickets. An incentive in the form of travel vouchers was offered … first $400, increasing to $800.

When there was reluctance for volunteers to give up their seats, flight attendants announced that the “computer” had “randomly,” the airline claimed, selected the names of four passengers who had no choice but to exit to airliner … still sitting at the gate at O’Hare.

Three passengers took the vouchers even though I understand that United could have offered up to $1,350. But, one man, reportedly 69 years old, said “NO.” He reportedly told fellow passengers that he was a doctor and needed to see patients on Monday. He remained resolute and kept his seat in economy.

Chicago O’Hare police brutality and cruelly wrestle a man from his seat on United 3411.

United made the decision to call police at the airport for help. As countless videos shot by smartphones and seen millions of times on social media show, one plainclothes officer struggles with the man and forcefully yanks him out of his seat and onto the plane’s floor. The bloodied passenger — who appears in videos to be dazed or unconscious — is then roughly dragged by officers off the plane.

At this writing, we know that one police officer has been put on leave pending an investigation. Yet, seeing the officer’s behavior, I wonder if it is the price we suffer for allowing militarized behavior by some police.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement that seemed to suggest the incident was the fault of the passenger on the overbooked plane.

The amateurish statement by Munoz serves to underscore what air travelers are coming to grips with — you have absolutely no rights when you board a United flight, and if you question or speak up, United may have you beaten and thrown off the flight. Passenger beware.

As one United “Million Mile” passenger warned the airline via Twitter …

“It is essential to explain what happened on United 3411 or you will suffer irreparable reputation damage.”

How would I advise United executives?

  • Grovel.
  • Act authentically contrite. Show humility.
  • Apologize publicly to the passenger and reward him handsomely. (He’s going to sue your butts off anyway.)
  • Demote or preferably dismiss cabin crew members who were involved, regardless of the unions.
  • Add at least another flight between O’Hare and Louisville.
  • Work with passengers on a “United Passengers Bill of Rights.”
  • Cut fares drastically.  Yeah, take a huge financial hit in an effort to rebuild customer loyalty.
  • Lastly, change the guy at the top — Munoz may be a manager but he is no leader.  He’s shown that repeatedly. United needs a dynamic leader if its wants to keep its reputation as a world airline.