United has work to do to repair image

This might be a good time to apply for a job in the public relations department of United Airlines. It’s going to need to work on its image a bit because, well, dragging a screaming passenger off a plane while others record the incident with their smart phones so it goes viral just isn’t what you want out there.

By now, you’ve heard of what happened Sunday night. If you didn’t, this is a summary of what went down at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Four crew members of a partner airline needed seats on Flight 3411. United offered passengers $800 in compensation if they agreed to take a different plane to Louisville, but drew no takers.

So, United, which is within its rights, selected four passengers to be removed. The passengers were selected based on a combination of criteria spelled out in United’s contract of carriage, including frequent-flier status, fare type, check-in time and connecting-flight implications, among others.

Three passengers went quietly. The fourth didn’t. David Dao, a physician in Elizabethtown, Ky., said “no.”

Let’s guess at the conversation United officials had when they huddled and debated their next move.

“One guy won’t leave the plane, he won’t listen to reason, and we must have that seat. What should we do?”

“Well, we could offer him more money or some free round-trip tickets. Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“Or we could again offer more money and tickets to other passengers. Surely someone will go if we give them enough.”

“Any chance we could get the crew members on another flight?”

“No. Forget all that. I’ve got a better idea. Let’s drag his butt off the plane.”

“Drag him? Really, you think that will work?”

“Yeah. It will set an example next time we have this problem. We’ll scare the hell out of passengers and they won’t give us any grief ever again. And it saves us some money, too. We don’t need to give him or anyone any free tickets to make up for flight issues. This could be our new approach.”

“That’s right. Let’s do it!”

The result?

Millions of people have watched the video of Dao being literally dragged away while other passengers watch in disbelief. Those passengers were stunned. Their comments:

“Please, my God.”

“What are you doing?”

“This is wrong.”

Well, the good news for United is, those crew members got the seats and we assume they made that flight they had to get to.

The bad news? A public relations nightmare.

It shouldn’t have happened.

It wasn’t like this was a split-second decision that had to be made. Some upper management with United actually had time to consider their options and settled on the one that featured a passenger hauled away because he refused to surrender his seat.

To make it worse, which they did, United labeled the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent,” like it was his fault. The poor guy is sitting there waiting to leave, suddenly his name is called and he’s told to get off the plane. Hmmm. For some reason, he was upset and didn’t respond well.

“This situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused, and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help,” says a letter from Oscar Munoz, United CEO.

Darn those passengers who want to take the flight they paid for. They should know it’s in the fine print that an airline can yank them right out of those seats whenever they want. Maybe United could put a large sign at the entry of each plane so it’s clear: “We reserve the right to physically pull you out of your seat should we need it.”

One consultant who watched the video referred to Dao being treated like a beaten animal and called United’s handling of the incident “brand suicide.”

And please, don’t bring up Dao’s past problems. A drug conviction 13 years ago doesn’t matter. If past problems justify such treatment, most of us are in trouble.

Munoz, while apologizing, defended his crew, though it’s hard to fathom why.

“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.”

Since when is dragging someone off a plane considered going above and beyond? Some have called it an assault.

He should have just stuck with the apology.

You almost feel sorry for United Airlines and the brain trust behind this fiasco. Well, not almost. You do feel sorry for them. Secretly, you know other airlines are snickering and saying, “Glad that’s not us.”

United is ramping up its apologies. It will do what it can to make things right. It will soften the image of that video. People will fly with United because for the most part, it does a good job and people will recognize this is a rare incident.

But we would suggest United have cooler, calmer heads making these decisions. It might want to work on some PR, consider a new, simple ad campaign. One idea? It could show Dao, being escorted to his seat, being allowed to stay in that seat for his flight, and happily leaving that seat at this destination, maybe even waving.

The voiceover: “It’s our job to beat the competition, not you.”

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