After United Airlines' response to a passenger being dragged from a flight here are six of the most memorable airline PR blunders

Rebecca Smith
Ryanair's boss developed a deliberately spiky persona in the airline's earlier days
Ryanair's boss developed a deliberately spiky persona in the airline's earlier days (Source: Getty)

United Airlines has racked up headlines after videos emerged yesterday of a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight.

The company’s response – including the chief executive saying the airline had to “re-accommodate” passengers hasn’t gone down well.

Read more: United Airlines boss pledges support for staff over flight 3411 incident

Of course, it’s not the only airline in recent times to have had a PR blunder – nor is it United’s only controversial moment in the past few weeks.

So here are six of the most memorable airline PR errors…

1. Not a leg to stand on

Two teenage girls were told they couldn’t board a United flight last month, as they were wearing leggings. The incident quickly picked up on social media and resulted in a barrage of criticism for the airline.

Initially the carrier said it did have a right to refuse transport for passengers who weren’t properly clothed, left “to the discretion of the gate agents”. It then later said the girls were travelling on an employee pass, which has a dress code.

The carrier clarified its comments and said regular, paying customers are welcome to wear leggings; just not United pass travellers.

By then of course, the backlash had well and truly taken off.

2. Making a hash of it

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is no stranger to controversy and has made his vocal approach to, well most things, part and parcel of his leadership style.

Back in 2013, before many businesses were wise to what a misstep on Twitter could lead to, Ryanair put its boss online to partake in a live Q&A. Only apparently he wasn’t fully briefed on what the platform involved.

The idea was passengers could post questions to O’Leary using the hashtag #GrillMOL, but he wasn’t aware his response to one of the first questioners would be seen by everyone.

“Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL” was the airline chief exec's response to a woman’s question. Then followed a wave of unimpressed responses.

O’Leary’s answer?

Oh and there was also the airline’s bikini calendar for its cabin crew, which was ditched in 2015.

The calendars, which did raise money for charity, were heavily criticised for being sexist. O’Leary said they no longer fit in with his airline’s more family-friendly image.

3. Under the weather

Speaking of Ryanair, remember that volcanic ash cloud which caused all that flight disruption back in 2010? That left lots of people stranded?

Ryanair had initially refused to abide by EU laws stating airlines should support stranded passengers until they fly them home, but was then forced into a U-turn, with a court ruling the airline had flouted the law by refusing to pay out.

O'Leary said "this compensation culture is running riot in this country", and has memorably described the airline's complaints procedure as: "You're not getting a refund so fuck off. We don't want to hear your sob stories. What part of 'no refund' don't you understand?"

4. Unnecessary baggage

Of course carriers misplace luggage from time to time (much to passengers’ frustration), only one such incident at Alaska Airlines caught more attention than others, in 2015.

Because the bag the carrier had lost belonged to none other than Bradley Tilden, Alaska’s chief executive.

Tilden admitted at an airline summit in Washington his own airline had indeed misplaced his bag during his flight to the summit (it was delivered to him the next day).

The airline is so confident in its baggage delivery system it became America’s first major carrier to offer a guarantee to deliver your bag within 20 minutes of reaching the gate – if it fails, the bagless passenger gets a $25 credit toward a future flight or 2,500 miles in the airline’s reward programme. So, there's that at least.

5. Friendly rivalry

Some competition is all in good fun. Only it wasn’t quite so fun for a British Airways employee last year, when they shared an ad from rival Virgin… on the British Airways Facebook page.

The eagle-eyed folk at Virgin Atlantic weren’t about to miss that open goal, replying: “Thanks British Airways! So kind of you to share! #onethingweagreeon #flyvirginatlantic”

6. High-flying turbulence

Timing can be everything when it comes to good PR swiftly turning into bad PR.

Case in point Qantas’ dabble in social back in November 2011. The Australian carrier had a nice enough idea to get its passengers interacting with the firm; running a Twitter competition for followers to win a pair of first class pyjamas by tweeting their “dream luxury inflight experience”.

Now the timing here was a problem, since the airline hadn’t been getting the best rep after grounding its fleet and it came a day after Qantas and its unions broke off contract negotiations.

The airline’s followers seized the change to swamp the hashtag and left Qantas in no doubt that its idea had well and truly backfired…

Choice examples included:

Read more: Passenger dragged off United Airlines flight after it was overbooked

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