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United Airlines : an object lesson in how to foul up.

Editorial Staff

As the world expressed outrage at the widely distributed video of United Airlines staff physically abusing a man who refused to surrender his properly paid for and allocated seat because the airline decided to bounce four people so that it could move its own staff from Chicago to Louisville, the company's CEO, Oscar MUNOZ issued a statement. Then he tried again. And then, as the company's share price began to fall, again. It was only in the third statement that he came close to an apology for the brutality.

Yesterday, we reported (United Breaks Guitars and a passenger's face. Can their PR get worse?") that Munoz "spends half his time trying to prevent his staff walking off the job and the other half apologising for his staff." He had issued a statement saying "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."

The response was predictable: social media was abuzz with people making unpleasant comments and many, many very funny comments and graphics. The comment that said nothing positive and used terms such as "re-accommodate" generated more ire as prospective passengers pointed out that this was not a typical overbooking: that the passengers concerned were properly ticketed, had boarding cards issued and were seated, in the aircraft, when the crew demanded they leave and security officers physically dragged one man, a 69 year old doctor on his way to work, off the plane causing facial injuries and apparent disorientation as shown in a video that was released later showing him in a highly distressed state.

Munoz decided to up the ante. Instead of being contrite, he issued another statement. He wrote to United staff. He started "Dear Team..." In the circular, he said that the man responded to crew members who told him he had been selected to be bounced, "he raised his voice and refused to comply." Each time he was asked "he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent."

Let's analyse that: an elderly man, travelling with his wife, on his way to work, who had paid for a ticket, gone to the airport, gone through the endless hassle that airports now present, was issued with a boarding pass, gone through all the checks and security to get to the gate, his ticket and boarding pass had been reviewed at the gate and he and his wife were cleared for boarding. They walked onto the plane and settled down ready for take-off. An announcement was made asking for four volunteers to delay their flight almost 24 hours, for which compensation would be paid. There were no takers. The offer was doubled. No takers. Then, United says, a random selection was made. But it was probably not entirely random for the man and his wife were both selected. That suggests that someone was looking for couples.

Munoz said in the letter that the flight crew "were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight." That, of course is patently untrue. They could have left him in his seat and let him fly without interruption. So what Munoz meant was "it was too late - we'd made up our mind."

He went on that as the assault progressed, the victim "continued to resist - running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials." Anyone who has seen the video (see the link in the previous article) of the man in a state of considerable distress after running back onto the aircraft will understand that by that point he was barely in control of his state of mind. Munoz did what Munoz always does: he told his staff "I emphatically stand behind all of you."

Munoz needs to man up and tell his staff that some of them, albeit a minority, are a disgrace, that the company is watching and that misbehaviour will be subject to disciplinary action. And the Unions need to accept that, in a service industry, service is king. Leaving an elderly man bloodied and in distress is not good service. Munoz needs to take on the bad staff and the Unions.

The world continued to punish Munoz and the airline. Its share price began to fall, more than 1% in one trading session.

And so Munoz issued another statement.

This time he said some of the right things. But, mostly, he continued the spin.


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The good bit:

"Statement from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz on United Express Flight 3411

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 apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. "

Except it's not that good, really. It's clear that it's a response to the public reaction. He tries to be pally with us - entirely failing to realise that at this point he's public enemy number one, and that he managed that without a can of coke and a blonde wig.

His claim to have been affected in the way that the travelling public was affected is hollow and bordering on the disingenuous. He seems to be entirely unaware that his previous statements have already set out his own reaction.

And then he disappears into a mound of PR speak.

"I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better. "

It says nothing except to admit that United's policies and procedures don't work. That, of course, is a management failure.

And then, despite the fact that the statement has no salutation, he puts "Sincerely." Well, sorry. It doesn't seem very sincere at all. It seems like a desperate attempt to try to sell a weak and misleading message.

And then, as if all of this is not enough, he signs off "Oscar."


As if he's our friend.


What he needs to do is get the passenger records and personally fly (ideally economy in one of his own aircraft to see what it's like for real people) to visit the doctor. Give him a written guarantee that United will indemnify him for any and all medical bills, including psychological or even psychiatric treatment if required, arising from the assault. He needs to provide him with a reasonable sum of money, right here, right now, as "walking around money." USD50,000 would be appropriate. He needs to give him, and his wife, at least one million air miles each with no preconditions, which can also be used for flights for family members to visit the couple. And all of this needs to be without prejudice to any legal action the man might bring or future negotiations.

Munoz needs to not tell anyone what he's done except to visit the couple. Let the couple announce the ex gratia payments if they choose to do so. Such action should be done out of humility, not as a PR stunt.

But you know what? He's still not going to win many friends, even if he does use his Christian name where his surname would be more appropriate.