Jaws dropped Sunday when footage surfaced of a United Airlines passenger getting physically dragged down an aisle to make room for one of several United employees.
Ironically, 2017 had been going really well for United Airlines. Of course, “really well” for United is a relative concept. This is the company that struggled for years after a rocky merger with Continental. It’s also the company that, in 2015, had one CEO resign amid a corruption scandal only for his replacement to suffer a heart attack one month later.
But, like we said, things were looking up. Eighty percent of United’s flights were on time last year -- and that trend continued into 2017. The Points Guy, a travel advice site, even ranked United as the second-best domestic airline in February of this year. That ranking would be so surprising to some people, the site felt it merited a special explanation.
Still, the video doesn’t make for a great visual -- and it’s one that’s now seared in travelers’ minds, sparking a social media outcry and calls to boycott the airline. The company reacted with a mixed response this week that has evolved from corporate speak to attacks on the passenger, to a full apology issued Tuesday afternoon.
It’s proof that complicated problems don’t get easier with big company resources. We reached out to a range of experts to get a better sense of what might have gone wrong and why the public reaction to this incident has been so passionate. Their advice is a sobering reminder to companies of any size of how to keep priorities straight.
Prevent the worst-case scenario.
Technically, airlines have the right to remove passengers for a variety of reasons. United’s contract of carriage, the fine print that dictates what rights a traveler can expect and when there might be a call for volunteers first. And a passenger’s refusal to leave is a violation of regulations, according to John Wensveen, a professor at Purdue University who specializes in air transportation management.
But as Wensveen points out, an 'appalling' chain of events led to that passenger’s refusal -- a chain that the airline could have controlled and prevented. The carrier, he says, would have had advance notice of the need to transport company personnel, who should have booked internally on what’s called a positive space ticket. This would have confirmed those staffers’ seats. Additionally, around 45 to 60 minutes before departure, the airline would have known how many passengers had checked in, and it could have started the call for volunteers earlier, before travelers boarded the plane.
Avoid blame but build confidence.
With varying results, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz released three statements regarding the incident. The first included an apology -- and the words "re-accommodate the passengers," phrasing some dubbed the "euphemism of the year."
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0— United (@united) April 10, 2017
Munoz’s second statement, an email to employees, asserted staff acted according to procedures and blamed the passenger for being belligerent. (Some witness accounts have countered this narrative, saying the passenger was firm but in control).
This response violates some core crisis communications principles, according to Michael Fineman of Fineman PR in San Francisco. To help clients keep these principles top of mind, he developed PANTCHEK, an acronym for keeping priorities straight. While it may not apply to every crisis, Fineman says, it’s one simple way to “not get caught with your pants down.”
The acronym reads as follows:
Public welfare is the first priority.
Assemble the facts. Once they are verified, announce all bad news at once.
No blame, speculation or repetition of negative charges or questions.
Tell your side of the story or take responsibility.
Care and concern for those affected -- express it sincerely and right at the outset.
High-level organization spokesperson -- let the public see the crisis has top-level attention.
Ensure that it will not happen again with a solid plan that will generate confidence.
Keep a separate plan for moving daily business ahead.
Munoz’s second statement did not subscribe to many of these PANTCHEK guidelines -- it didn’t put public welfare first and didn’t avoid blame. The CEO’s statement was widely criticized online, in part because it didn’t align with what many expect when a company makes a mistake. “There’s no dignity in blame,” Fineman says. “If you’ve done something wrong, it’s just not a stand-up response.”
Worse, it didn’t promote confidence or prove that the incident wouldn't happen again -- another PANTCHEK principle. The company’s messaging reinforces the dramatic image on the video -- a man can be dragged off a plane against his will. It hadn’t reassured the public that if they buy a ticket on United, they can depend on the company to take care of them and get them to their destination. Removal rules vary across airlines, but as Fineman points out, you don’t get this type of messaging on Virgin or Alaska. “It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong to give consumers the idea that once they get into your hands they have no control.”
Fineman says that in situations like this, he’d recommend generating a full report of the incident, one that would explain how the issue got away from the company and how it would make amends with the affected passenger. That report would be accompanied by a plan that would demonstrate new guidelines, policies and employee training programs. Only a solid plan, Fineman says, could “begin to bring back confidence in the airline.”
Likely, Munoz’s team realized this -- unfortunately only after a public uproar. Munoz’s third statement, released Tuesday, was more apologetic, and it promised real changes and review, as well as a report to the public before the month is out.
Help make real change happen.
While a plan is critical, only real execution can prevent an incident like this -- or something worse -- from occurring. Wensveen says that United will need to change the way it does business to ensure that staffers on the scene have the freedom to make the "right" decisions. He says, “Internally, as it relates to policies, procedures and expectations, constant education and frequent communication with employees will help decrease incidents.” This communication can’t just be the passive “handbook” sort, Wensveen says. Leadership will need to actively and constantly reinforce directives to staff so they fully understand how to handle challenging situations.
Rob Britton, an adjunct professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and principal of the aviation consultancy AirLearn, suggests an online how-to resource or hotline that could help staffers when the unusual does occur -- one that offers step-by-step guidance on handling problems in the moment.
And to prevent another PR fail -- one that makes a bad situation worse -- it’s clear United’s communications team will need some critical attention, as well as scripts and talking points. “They need to explain details, because airlines are details businesses,” Britton says, “and they need to use plain English, not industry jargon.” Messaging “will always have to be quickly tailored to precisely fit the situation, but should always be on the shelf.”