United Airlines: An abject lesson in how not to behave in a crisis

Elena Shalneva
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If you read United’s statement without knowing the background, you would think an airline was issuing an apology because a customer had requested a vegetarian meal but did not get one (Source: Getty)

Unless you were taking a break from the internet for the past two days, you would have come across a video of an elderly man – apparently 69, apparently a doctor – with his shirt rolled above his stomach, glasses slid down his face, blood dripping from his mouth, dragged down the aisle of the United Airlines flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville.

What you would not have come across – even if you spent hours browsing – is a video of United chief executive Oscar Munoz offering an unconditional apology for this incident.

In a fair world, Munoz should have hit every news studio, every late night talk show with a single message: the incident was United’s fault because it happened on board a United plane. The crew in question has been suspended pending full investigation. A formal complaint has been filed with the federal Department of Transportation. The passenger will be compensated generously. Nothing like this will happen under his watch ever again.

Munoz would have had to face humiliating questions from interviewers and boos and heckles from studio audiences. He would have had to admit to the rank incompetence of some of his staff. He would have had to publicly accept the disgrace of the situation and his personal responsibility for it. But then this is what you do when you are a chief executive.

Read more: Here are six of the most memorable airline PR blunders

Instead, he issued a statement, which I am sure you have all seen. Apart from the obvious need to send his PRs on an English composition course for using expressions like “re-accommodate”, what struck me in this statement was its tone. If you read it without knowing the background, you would think that an airline was issuing an apology because a customer had requested a vegetarian meal but did not get one.

The United apology

Part of the problem must be the PRs with their inability to say anything beyond well-trodden clichés, such as “reaching out to this passenger”. Another part is of course the United lawyers. You can just see them firing off exasperated instructions to keep the statement vague and not admit any wrongdoing.

But these are lawyers and PRs with their narrow corporate remits. Munoz is a different matter. He is the chief executive, and it was entirely within his power to overrule that sorry piece of paper put in front of him, summon his courage, and issue a press statement which was bold and genuine.

Read more: Don’t be so British: Why being direct is vital in business

Did Munoz actually watch that video? Usually, the expression “dragged off the plane” refers to being escorted politely by the elbow. This is what they sometimes do to rowdy stag parties. In the United case, “dragged off the plane” meant police pulling an old man from his seat, smashing his face against the arm rest, then trailing him down the aisle like a wheel barrow. I saw an episode of The Bridge once where a drug dealer was arrested with half of the force used on the United plane, and later successfully sued for police brutality.

But what is most frightening in this video is that – despite this man being old, despite this man being helpless, despite this man screaming, bleeding, hallucinating – none of the United crew interfered with what the police were doing or even spoke out. And this is the crew to whom Munoz professed full allegiance in a leaked email issued the following day.

I cannot wait to see which leading trial lawyer will take the passenger’s case. Issuing a vague statement instead of a full-hearted apology could save United a few bob in whatever legal settlement it reaches with the passenger, but it will lose it millions and millions in potential revenues, legal fees and regulatory investigations. Personally, I hope that United never faces an overbooking problem again.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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