In the Crisis Management Hall of Infamy, a special place will be reserved for United Airlines and its CEO Oscar Munoz.If ever a crisis management and crisis communication coach needs a text book example of exactly how NOT to handle a crisis, Mr Munoz and United Airlines have provided it.
To recap on the events in this extraordinary affair so far, United Airlines decided to remove four paying passengers – their customers – from a flight from Chicago to Louisville to give the seats to their staff.
An elderly passenger, who was picked to leave, refused and was subsequently dragged by his arms, bleeding, out of the plane by heavy-handed security men.He is 69-year-old doctor and grandfather David Dao, from Kentucky, who was screaming as he was violently removed from Flight 3411, his face bloodied.
The other passengers were understandably shocked and distressed at the violent treatment of Dr Dao, who, subsequently, needed days of hospital treatment and is now in the process of suing United Airlines.
A passenger sitting behind the doctor, pregnant Joya Griffin Cummings, filmed the entire incident and wrote afterwards that Dr Dao was “no less irritated than anyone else would have been”, and that she had feared for her own safety and that of her unborn child.The video of United Airlines’ physical manhandling of Dr Dao was soon all over Twitter and other social media and the mainstream media – inflicting the maximum reputational damage on United Airlines.
Its share price nosedived (although it later recovered some of its losses).
This was very clearly a PR disaster of epic proportions.
Yet it took United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz a remarkable 48 hours to apologise and then he did not seem to really mean it. Where was his media training?
Mr Munoz said he was sorry “for having to re-accommodate these customers” but then in a private letter to staff – which, let’s face it, was always certain to become public – he praised all the staff involved, saying, with breathtaking insensitivity to the victim: “I emphatically stand behind all of you and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
Let’s go back to fundamentals.
In the airline business, allocating the correct number of seats to the correct number of travellers is as basic as remembering to book a pilot to fly the plane.
Even if there is an overbooking policy to make up for no-shows, airlines should not allow more passengers and staff onto a jet than there are seats to accommodate them. This is not rocket science. If airline staff can’t do this, they are in the wrong business.
So, alarm bells start to ring about United Airlines and those working on their behalf so soon as you realise that they admitted four people too many to Flight 3411.
Even worse, it would appear that the late-comers were other United Airlines crew.
The company said: “After the plane was fully boarded, the gate agents were approached by crew members that they [the gate agents] were told needed to board the flight.”
So what was happening here? Were these crew members working on that flight, in which case why were they not already on the plane?
Or were they United Airlines crew members who were off duty and going home? In which case, why on earth did they take priority over the paying passengers? And why hadn’t they booked tickets in advance?
Whatever the answers, the United Airlines crew members were allowed to board the plane and other crew members asked for four volunteer passengers to give up their seats and leave the flight before it took off.
Not surprisingly, as the next flight was the following afternoon, there were no volunteers.
Crew offered passengers a bribe, reportedly between 800 and 1,000 dollars to get off the plane.
Incidentally, an aviation expert told Mail Online that there was no limit on what the airline could have offered the passengers to give up their seats – but they did not offer more.
Instead, the crew picked four people, supposedly at random, and told them to get off the plane. David Dao was one of these unfortunates.
And when Dr Dao refused to budge, Chicago Aviation Security Officers were called to forcibly remove him.
He was literally dragged down the aisle by his arms, bleeding from his face, and thrown off the plane.
It was assault of a civilian, plain and simple.
Had the crew forgotten that this man had paid good money to fly with their airline? Or that he was one of the people paying their wages?
Since the incident, the media has been full of reports seeking to blacken Dr Dao’s name, suggesting that he had mental health issues.
But this strikes me as a smokescreen. When you fly, you are in the hands of an airline and that airline has a duty of care to you.
If Dr Dao did react badly to being told to leave a plane he had paid to fly on, the crew should have taken that into account in their handling of him.
Instead, they treated him like a criminal, disgracing themselves and their indeed their country around the world.
Could it be that someone is leaking these, completely irrelevant to the incident, stories about Dr Dao to smear his name? I would not like to say, but their rapid appearance in the media is interesting to say the least.
It seems absolutely incredible to me that United Airlines Chief Executive Oscar Munoz was so keen to protect and laud ALL the staff involved – when the Chicago Aviation Security Officers who ejected Dr Dao have now been suspended.
How to Manage this Crisis
So, what should be done? How can this crisis be managed?
Clearly, the decision to remove forcibly an upset 69-year-old from the flight was an appalling judgment call. And whoever made that decision, whether it be the most experienced pilot, needs to go.
Where was the plane’s captain in all of this? What leadership did he show?
Interestingly, the United Airlines pilots union is taking a very different tack from the CEO, saying in a statement that it was all the fault of Chicago Department of Aviation staff and that the plane was being operated under contract for United Airlines by Republic Airline.
But it was a United Airlines flight flying their name and brand, so that buck-passing does not work.
From the known facts, it is apparent that moral corruption has set into United Airlines and its partner, which seem to be run like a care home for its employees.
The staff – not the clients – have put themselves at the centre of everything and, as such, it made it possible for a customer to be treated worse than anyone would treat an animal.
A company that puts its staff ahead of its customers does not deserve to be in business.
And the person who presides over such a pernicious culture is not fit to be in post.
I believe Oscar Munoz needs to resign or be sacked – and for it to happen fast. If United Airlines’ Board can’t see this, it is failing in its duty to shareholders.
Because of the way he has managed this crisis, his position is untenable but, as I write, it is unclear how long he will be able to hang on.
This is not even the first time that United Airlines has been in this kind of bind. As a brand, it has a track record of mistreating, using and abusing its customers.
The Los Angeles Times reported a company executive, who was flying first-class with United Airlines, was threatened with having handcuffs slapped on him unless he got off to make way for a “higher-priority customer”.
The customer, firm president Geoff Fearns, who had paid the full price of 1,000 dollars for his ticket, told the paper: “I understand you might bump people because a flight is full. But they didn’t say anything at the gate.
“I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”
* “United put our luggage on the wrong plane, then when we arrived at our destination, United agent refused to reimburse the luggage fee and told us we would have to come back to airport tomorrow and pick it up ourselves.”
* “I was kicked off the United flight. Apparently, the seat United assigned for me was not ‘intended’ for infants. Get off or pay for another seat in another cabin. I paid another $1000 for another seat right then and there. The issue became who would watch my infant now sitting in business class? . . .The ludicrousness of United attendants, gate agents are really to fault. The last mile and the customer facing side for United is their Achilles heel.”
* “I had purchased a first class seat months before, had my boarding pass in hand when I was told at the boarding gate that I had been ‘dropped’ from the flight. . . Needless to say this was a very distressful and infuriating experience. I will never fly United Airlines again.”
* “We went to place the bags in the overhead compartment but found it to be full despite there being one passenger at this time, in the first several rows. Upon asking the flight attendance for assistance, she said we should place the baby’s bag at the back of the plane where there is room.
“Upon asking for assistance in making space, the gate agent was called and we were told that we (along with our baby) would be escorted off of the plane if we further complained. Here’s the kicker: as it turns out, mid-flight, we discovered that the overhead above us was occupied by that flight attendant’s suitcase (she decided to remove her suitcase mid-flight from the overhead area above us).”
Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University, summed it up, telling the Los Angeles Times United Airways currently has a “coldhearted mindset” which is “utterly devoid of compassion for customers”.
One tends to assume that airlines are run by competent people.
Yet I well recall that one of the most ineffective and over-confident chief executives I ever reported to came from the airline industry.
He would wander round the building making small talk with staff and agreeing to whatever he was asked, seeking personal popularity but not winning respect or spending much time trying to running the business. When he was eventually shown the door, where did he go? Back into another executive role with an airline!
The key for United Airlines now is to save their company. After the Board axes the CEO, it needs to stabilise by appointing a new Chief Executive who knows how to put the customers ahead of the staff.
It is not easy to turn around a morally bankrupt outfit but it is possible.
The new CEO should quickly reach an out-of-court settlement with Dr Dao (even if it costs millions of dollars) and avoid at all costs going to court or slinging mud at him, whatever the fee-chasing lawyers advise.
I suspect millions of flyers will now boycott United Airlines and their partners but, with root and branch reform, it is possible to save the company and rebuild a good reputation.
Every member of staff will need to be retrained to learn to the put the customer first and above themselves. Those who don’t make the grade will have to leave like their hapless, deluded chief executive.
But it is not going to be easy.
* This article is the view of the author who is a Brighton-based specialist in crisis management and crisis communication training, crisis support and media relations and media training, working in Sussex and London.