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In the News

Social media storms hit United Airlines

Penny Brooks

18th April 2017

The response of United Airlines to the video showing a passsenger being forcibly dragged off one of their planesin Chicago was too slow, and too defensive. Dr Dan Dao had not caused any problem on the plane, but had taken his seat and then refused to disembark in order to allow United to replace him with one of their own staff on the flight, which was fully booked. He was then dragged off the plane by airport police, losing two teeth and breaking his nose in the process; his lawyer says that he will need reconstructive surgery. Other passengers video'd and posted the incident, which does not look good.

In contrast to Pepsi's swift response to social media backlash against one of its ads last week, United's response was slow and defensive, initially accusing the passenger of being belligerent. They moved from "issuing tone-deaf statements that deflected legal blame while doing little to prevent brand damage" to eventually offering to compensate every passenger on the flight for distress they suffered. But this is looking like too little, too late at the moment as United have received calls for boycotts from all sides, from Donald Trump in the White House to passenger groups in China, where United are very keen to establish themselves as a major transnational carrier. 

It is widely thought that it is the ferocity of the response in China which finally caused Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United, to take the matter seriously. As reported in the FTAs reported in the FT, ironically, he was recently awarded PR Week’s “communicator of the year” award. PR Weeks citation said “Since taking on CEO duties in September 2015, Munoz has transformed the fortunes of the airline, galvanised staff, and set the business on a smoother course", and applauded him for being a sure touch on the shop floor and understanding “the value of communication”.  

That value of communication has just got a whole lot higher, as United look likely to face a very heavy cost in compensation. 

Penny Brooks

Formerly Head of Business and Economics and now Economics teacher, Business and Economics blogger and presenter for Tutor2u, and private tutor

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