April 19, 2017

United Airlines underestimated the power of its passengers and their social network

On April 9, 2017, Dr David Dao, a passenger on United Express flight 3411 from O’Hare International Airport was scheduled to fly back to Lousville International Airport in Kentucky, United States of America, when he was violently dragged off his seat by airport marshalls, by request of the airline crew.

The incident was captured on video by one of the passengers armed with a mobile phone, and within hours the story had reached worldwide attention. The now infamous video of Dr Dao, unconscious and bleeding while being dragged down the aisle of the airplane, is not going away any time soon.

What did we not see in the video?

According to reports, four United Airlines crew members needed to be at Louisville for another flight, and since the flight was overbooked, four passengers who’d paid to get a seat and had already cleared the boarding gate needed to be bumped to the next flight. An $800 voucher was offered to anyone who would give up their seat, but since there were no takers, United Airlines ground crew decided to pick out “volunteers” a la Hunger Games.  Three out of the four passengers got off the plane, but Dr Dao, who was with his wife at the time, refused as he needed to see his patients the following morning. United Airlines crew members called for back up, and the rest, they say, is history.

What happened after the incident?

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, issued a statement about the flight:

Despite its timeliness, netizens were quick to notice that it was a non-apology from the PR Week Communicator of the Year awardee. This stoked the anger of an already raging public:

Things got worse when an email from the CEO to United Airlines employees was leaked.

The email reveals that Munoz called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent,” and praised the crew despite what happened.

Even celebrities gave their two cents on the matter.

Other airlines also took this opportunity to slam United Airlines, including Emirates airlines, the TripAdvisor Airline of the Year.

On April 11, 2017, just 2 days after the incident transpired, United Airlines’ stocks slipped by a little over 1%, only recovering after Munoz issued an apology a third time. This time, the CEO took full responsibility and vowed “to make things right.”

What’s the takeaway from all this?

It’s no surprise that this incident rocked the whole world, because stories from one country to another travel faster through social media.  The incident on United Airlines 3411 created an uproar not only among Americans, but also anyone who had a social media account anywhere in the globe. A considerable number of people have expressed their outrage on Facebook and Twitter, and swore never to consider flying with United Airlines for future travel plans.

Other passengers who have had a horrible experience with United Airlines came forward, and to add to the media and PR firestorm burning its way into the company’s reputation, Dr Dao’s lawyer, Thomas Demetrio, said they’re planning legal action.

The viral footage started a whole new conversation on what are the rights and privileges of a passenger, and how some members of the air transport industry have seemingly lost touch of their responsibility to ensure the safety and convenience of their passengers whether they are riding first class or coach. The incident also highlighted how easy it is for a company to issue a statement as if a human life was not endangered, completely disregarding the value of a sincere apology, and not taking full responsibility for something that happened to a paying customer inside their aircraft.

Another thing that United Airlines seemed to have forgotten is that these days, whatever you do in public may end up online in some form, and that the consumer ultimately has the power to spell the difference between a company’s triumph and failure.