Videos of a Man Being Dragged Off a United Plane Ignites a Public Relations Crisis – New York Times
United Airlines on Tuesday faced a spiraling crisis from videos showing a passenger being dragged off an airplane, as consumers threatened a boycott of the airline and lawmakers called for an investigation. By the afternoon, after more than a day of changing statements, United’s chief executive apologized and promised a review of its policies.
“No one should ever be mistreated this way,” Oscar Munoz, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement.
But the videos had already cast an unwelcome light not just on United, but on the airline industry’s efforts to maximize profits. As companies push to make money from baggage fees, seat reservations and other services that were once included with a basic plane ticket, the videos added the potential for an even harsher indignity: sitting in a seat with a ticket and getting physically ejected from the airplane.
The passenger, Dr. David Dao, was identified late Tuesday in a statement from his lawyers, who said he was undergoing treatment in a Chicago-area hospital for his injuries. Some videos had showed him with a bloody face.
On social media, the firestorm swept around the world. Chinese social media users accused United, which does a lot of business in the country, of racism by targeting Dr. Dao, who appeared to be Asian. In the United States, customers showed pictures of their United loyalty or credit cards cut into pieces. And lawmakers called for an investigation.
“The last thing a paying airline passenger should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding, especially one that could likely have been avoided,” the four top leaders of the Senate commerce committee said in a letter on Tuesday to Mr. Munoz.
The disturbing images of a passenger being violently ejected from an airplane by security officers rippled across a consolidating industry. Today, four major airlines account for about 80 percent of domestic air travel. In recent years, as the consolidation has increased, passengers have been forced into a host of policies that ding their wallet and their comfort.
But social media has proved to be a powerful outlet for complaints. United drew quick criticism for its initial response to the Sunday evening incident, with many people calling it tone deaf. On Monday, when Mr. Munoz apologized for having to “re-accomodate these customers,” the internet saw that as a joke. “Nice to know ‘re-accomodate’ on United now means ‘drag you violently out of your seat,’” one woman posted on Twitter.
A few hours later, United seemed to go on the offensive when it circulated a letter in which Mr. Munoz appeared to blame Dr. Dao, saying he “defied” the officers. Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, the airline changed course again, with Mr. Munoz saying that United would take “full responsibility” for the situation.
“Better late than never, but the sentiment certainly rings a bit hollow when it follows two previous failures and 36 hours of intense public pressure,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal at the corporate public relations firm Group Gordon. “The back-against-the-wall, through-gritted-teeth apology isn’t generally a winning strategy.”
For United and Mr. Munoz, who just last month was named Communicator of the Year by PR Week, a trade publication, the videos have turned into a crisis. They come on the heels of another incident about two weeks ago in which the airline was forced to defend itself about what some saw as a sexist policy after it barred two teenage girls wearing leggings from a flight.
“It’s fair to say that if PR Week was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz,” the trade publication said on Tuesday.
After tumbling during the day, United’s stock ended Tuesday down 1.13 percent.
Perhaps more than anything, the videos hit a nerve because they highlighted the ability of airlines to remove paying customers when the companies overbook flights.
Tina Stringer, a first-time United customer from Chicago, was in New Orleans on vacation when the video surfaced. Before boarding her return flight on Tuesday, she said, “I was just praying that nothing bad would happen.”
Happily, her flight back to O’Hare International Airport was uneventful. But the video made an impression — so much so that she pulled up news coverage of the incident on her cellphone while waiting for her cousin to pick her up.
“I think it was kind of scary,” said Ms. Stringer, 45, “because innocent people are just trying to get where they want.”
Ken Lewandowski, 63, of Crystal Lake, Ill., who had just flown home from Florida on United, had also seen the video.
“There was a better way to do it,” he said.
United, on Tuesday, appeared to backtrack from prior statements that the flight with Dr. Dao aboard — heading from O’Hare in Chicago to Louisville, Ky. — was overbooked.
Instead, Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United, said the flight was full and then crew members, who were scheduled to operate a flight Monday morning from Louisville to Newark, N.J., needed seats on the plane. If the crew members had not been allowed to board, Ms. McCarthy said, the Monday morning flight would have been canceled.
Still, it is not uncommon for airlines to overbook, or sell more tickets than they have seats. At that point, they try to get people to voluntarily change their plans — or, if there are no takers, force them to change.
The odds of actually being booted from a flight involuntarily are quite low. Last year, airlines involuntarily bumped about 40,600 people, a fraction of the roughly 660 million passengers who flew, according to data from the Department of Transportation. About 434,000 people voluntarily gave their seats up for compensation.
Airlines have oversold flights for decades, expecting several people not to show up for a flight. It is a strategy that ensures a full plane and maximizes profits for airlines. Typically, airlines begin bargaining with passengers at the gate, offering travel vouchers of $400 to $600. In the United States, compensation maxes out at $1,350, but experts say the reward offers rarely get that high.
While the Transportation Department said it was investigating whether the airline complied with rules regarding overbooking, it noted that each airline sets its own system and procedures for deciding whom to bump. United said it would review its overbooking policies.
Many politicians also called for the rules to be reviewed. In addition to their letter to Mr. Munoz, leaders of the Senate’s commerce committee, John Thune, Bill Nelson, Roy Blunt and Maria Cantwell, also demanded a full accounting of the incident from the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Some airlines choose to bump the passengers who paid the lowest fares, while some choose the last passengers to check in. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to give involuntarily bumped passengers “a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t,” according to its consumer guide.
Although most airlines do not like to discuss how many involuntary customers they bump, Gil West, the chief operating officer of Delta, did just that in a December 2015 presentation to investors and analysts.
“This is probably the most painful customer experience you could ever have, right?” Mr. West said. “You paid for your ticket, you show up at the gate,” and the airline says you cannot fly.
United’s website says that when the airline cannot find volunteers, it will “deny boarding to passengers in accordance with our written policy on boarding priority.” Ms. McCarthy would not share the written policy.
She said its agents follow a protocol for determining who will be selected, aiming to avoid families traveling together and unaccompanied minors. United also tends to protect people with connecting flights, those with mileage status through frequent flier or credit card programs, fare buckets and “a whole number of things,” she said.
Ms. McCarthy said the protocol was followed on Dr. Dao’s flight. Three passengers got off the plane. But Dr. Dao did not give up his seat, and he was forcibly removed — dragged down the airplane aisle, his glasses askew, face bloodied — by several security officers.
One of the officers has been placed on leave, according to the authorities.
Crisis communications experts criticized United’s initial response to the event.
There are “countless metrics you could look at to justify the cost of a higher compensation offer for those passengers on that plane,” said Mr. Robinson-Leon, pointing to the price of crisis management, the loss in stock value, the potential for lost business and even the time of Mr. Munoz, who makes at least $1.2 million a year.
Other corporations also chimed in. Emirates posted a short video to Twitter, criticizing Mr. Munoz for a snide remark he had made about Emirates and pointing out its customer satisfaction accolades.
The Twitter account for Merriam-Webster said on Monday night that “volunteer” means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.”
“We recognize that our response yesterday did not reflect the gravity of the situation,” Ms. McCarthy said. “And for that we also apologize. Our focus now is looking ahead and making this right.”
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