United Airlines found itself in yet another controversy after they forcibly removed a man on an overbooked flight. The airline stated that it needed to seat crew members looking to make it to their flight the next day and could not find volunteers to give up their seats. After offering $400 and $800 vouchers to no avail, United used a random generator to choose four passengers to deplane.
One man, however, refused, citing that he was a doctor who needed to treat patients the next day. Consequently, police were called, leading to the bloody and violent removal of the man as seen in the video.
— Tyler Bridges (@Tyler_Bridges) April 9, 2017
After being pulled from his seat, the man’s head hit an armrest and he was dragged down the aisle. With the prevalence of video and social media, United’s treatment of the man in question has pushed many users to boycott the airline.
Why did this problem occur in the first place?
Turns out overbooking happens quite frequently on planes. According to data from the Department of Transportation, 26,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from their flights in 2015.
Airlines bet on the fact that some passengers won’t arrive and try to guess how many tickets they can sell to end up with a fully-booked plane. On the off chance that everyone shows up and the plane is overbooked, they look for volunteers to give up their seat, in exchange for vouchers that passengers can use to subsidize a subsequent flight. If nobody volunteers, they have the right to bump someone involuntarily, with certain rules applying.
Still, the backlash that faces United is unique because of the unprecedented escalation of events that followed as a result of it.
How did United respond to the situation?
Despite the horrifying consequences, United Airlines executives appear to be untouched. In fact, their responses to the situation was arguably worse than their handling of the situation, if possible.
“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”
Hours after the spread of the viral video, United’s evasive apology increased backlash. Rather than apologizing for the treatment of the man, United apologized for the overbooking. This highlighted United’s reluctance to take responsibility for their actions, further showing their disregard and disconnect with their user base.
In another step backwards, United later appeared to justify their actions. CEO Oscar Munoz wrote a letter to his employees to voice his support for how the employees acted, also describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. Regardless of the public video documenting the event, the consistent response from the United team appears to be going around the problem and deflecting blame.
— Kaylyn Davis (@kaylyn_davis) April 10, 2017
In a final media statement, Munoz showed a shocking level of being out-of-touch with the social media outcry, despite ironically being named PRWeek U.S Communicator of the Year. His attempt to categorize this as a logistical problem rather than a human problem proved to be the final straw.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
In one word – “re-accommodate” – United Airlines responded to a PR crisis with a tone-deaf message that continued to alienate its users.
Social media’s response
After Munoz’s comments, Twitter users were quick to criticize his characterization of the problem.
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) April 10, 2017
Nice to know "re-accomodate" on United now means "drag you violently out of your seat."
— Meg ♥️ (@sassylibrarian1) April 10, 2017
Users also took to taking advantage of United’s most recent social media campaign, #UnitedJourney, which encouraged passengers to share their travel photos, to post photos of the events that transpired instead.
— JS (@VonStruve) April 10, 2017
— Robert Beezer (@PatriotBeezer) April 10, 2017
Furthermore, a new hashtag, #NewUnitedAirlineMottos, is now trending with nearly 108K tweets, featuring one-liners that summarize the company’s recent actions.
— ⚡️The Burke Report⚡️ (@TheBurkeReport) April 11, 2017
In more than one way, #BoycottUnited has sparked a flurry of acquisition and retention issues for United. As users take to social media to voice their opinions, United will continue to lose business as well as irrevocably tarnish their brand image. Despite multiple opportunities to mitigate the situation, United has failed to make any effort that suggests it recognizes their wrongdoings.
It’s clear: users will not tolerate punishing passengers for a mistake that the airline made.
To that end, they will force United to hear their anger because it appears United has not cared about their concerns. As customers begin to see that the person forcibly removed could have been them, they are committed to forcing United to change.
With the ease and access of social media and video cameras, almost no encounter is private. United has faced a litany of PR nightmares due to its poor actions and even poorer responses, but it still doesn’t appear as if it has learned from its mistakes. From barring two early teens from boarding because they were wearing leggings to preventing a Muslim woman from getting an unopened can of soda on the basis that she may “use it as a weapon”, #BoycottUnited has been increasingly used to protest the company’s contentious decisions.
Because its PR responses show they are unresponsive to the growing outrage of users, it appears United will only learn as consumers make their voices heard through their purchase decisions. With the power of social media, hopefully we can ensure that United Airlines will surely never have the problem of overbooking and having too many people wanting to use their service ever again.
By Miki Ding, Data Enthusiast | Co Founder | Linkedin Campus Editor
Miki Ding is a junior at UC Berkeley and is a Millennial writing about her perspective on women, school, and politics. Co-founder of her own first generation college mentorship program, she is interested in how equal opportunity can be achieved in education and employment for those who are most vulnerable. Currently, she’s trying to do so with data analytics and computer science. Feel free to check out her Linkedin or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you enjoyed this piece or would like to talk more about it.