United Airlines’ Response to Forcibly Removed Passenger Represents the Worst of Corporate Communications

Categories Blog, Business and Leadership
airline passengers

And the Oscar for “best forced apology by a CEO” goes to… United Airlines and Oscar Munoz!

I continue to be shocked by the poor response of United Airlines to the plight of Dr. David Dao, who was forcibly removed and injured by a Chicago “aviation security” officer because he refused to leave the plane.

Let’s look at United Airlines’ response timeline:

Before the incident-

  1. Instead of offering more money than they originally had to find passengers willing to be bumped from the airline so its employees could travel on the full flight, the airline decided to force four random passengers to deplane.
  2. While two passengers did leave the plan after being the “lucky” chosen ones, Dr. Dao refused to leave his seat and proceeded to call his attorney.
  3. Aviation security officers were brought onto the plane to confront Dr. Dao, he was dragged off of the plane and, while being pulled out of his seat, his head was slammed against the armrest of the aisle seat opposite where he was sitting.
  4. Dr. Dao returned to the plane, which was then emptied of passengers, and he was carried off on a stretcher.

After the incident:

United Airlines’ CEO made a first statement:

Let’s break down this fetid mound of absurd corporate speak, line by line.

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. OK, you’re upset, good. You should be.

I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Uh, what? I don’t think that being re-accommodated is why the internet is suddenly pissed off at your company.

Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. So your #1 concern is finding out what happened. Maybe you should watch the video? Forgive me, but I’m fairly sure that smashing a passenger’s face is not standard operating procedure.

We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation. “Reaching out” doesn’t sound very contrite, in fact it sounds like a bullshit way of stalling for time.

Not Impressed

Next, as might be expected, the internet joined in a collective take down:

United Is #SorryNotSorry

Next, United CEO Oscar Munoz doubled down on asshattery by sending an internal message defending his employees’ actions, and stating “treating customers with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.” Sure.

Unsurprisingly, investors were not impressed with this self-inflicted wound and the stock ended up losing over 1% on the day.

Oh Wait, Did You Say “Market Cap?”

Financial losses must have finally gotten United’s attention, as Munoz then put out a second statement in the afternoon the day after:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard.  No one should ever be mistreated this way.

So essentially Munoz and United are sorry in the same way that a compulsive gambler is sorry he lost the family minivan; that is they’re sorry they got caught.

This is a real apology, finally. It hits all the right buttons. But it’s still a failure, and here’s why:

  • You can clearly tell this was written by his PR people, not him, because all the other evidence we have of his writing isn’t anything like this style.
  • He says, “I continue to be disturbed by what happened” but he wasn’t that bothered just a few hours earlier. Totally contrived.
  • The apology took a day to happen. Way too late, and only after there was widespread outrage and financial damage.

Putting it all together, this apology looks like yet another soulless CEO forced to be contrite when they really aren’t. How is it that when some leaders get to a certain level they check their humanity at the door?

Let’s check in with our mentor:

Aha. Now I understand.

Let’s Take It From the Top

This United fiasco points out yet again how you can have the best people in the world working for you and still make basic PR 101 mistakes. Here’s what United should have done:

  • Apologize sincerely as quickly as possible.
  • State that you will make sure this never happens to another passenger.
  • Show, publicly, that you have corrected the policies that led to the incident.

If United had taken these steps right away, they would have saved themselves a huge part of this headache. Better yet, they could have avoided the whole thing by simply offering the passengers more money until enough agreed to deplane, provided alternative transportation for the airline staff, or chosen another passenger when Dr. Dao expressed how urgent it was that he get home to care for his patients the next morning.

Knives Out for Dr. Dao

Since the incident, defenders of United have used United’s ‘Contract of Carriage,’ or the fine print we all agree to when we fly, to say that removing Dr. Dao by force was justified. That may be a false argument:

Aviation attorney Arthur Wolk says he read all 45 pages of United’s Contract of Carriage and he believes the airline violated its own contract.

“I want to assure United Airlines they had absolutely no right to remove that man from the airplane. Absolutely no right to forcibly remove him from an airplane. They’re in trouble.”

The truth is, it’s irrelevant. If your business policy leads to a passenger getting the shit beaten out of them, it needs to change.

Anyone studying PR or corporate communications today would be wise to use United’s fiasco as a prime example of what not to do.