United Airlines does not have a “PR” problem

United Airlines has social media black eye for Sunday’s manhandling of a customer in Chicago. But this is not a “PR” problem, it’s not superficial behavior. The problem is deep in the soul of the organization.

It’s been a long week for United Airlines, with no end in sight.

In his initial response to Sunday’s deplorable corporate behavior on United Flight 3411, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, talked about “re-accommodating” customers and characterized the event — a passenger being dragged off a United airplane by his arms and legs — as a consequence of “overbooking” [1].

On Thursday, the attorney for the man dragged from the plane, Dr. David Dao, 69, told the world that his client suffered a concussion, a sinus injury, and a broken nose. The Chicago officers who dragged him off the plane also knocked out two of Dao’s teeth.

Attorney Thomas Demetrio said that United employees asked Dao’s wife to leave the plane after he was forcibly removed. In at least one of the consumer videos of Sunday’s brutality, you can see a woman exit the plane at the end of the video.

Spin zone: overbooking

Airlines routinely overbook flights in order to fly with as few empty seats as possible. Anyone who has traveled a bit knows this. Thus United’s characterization was an adroit “PR” move in the disparaging/spin sense of the phrase.

Media, pundits and politicians swallowed “overbookingwhole and unthinkingly; they prattled it back to us, stenography-style. Even though it was clear, from the beginning, that the passenger had boarded the plane.

The former CEO of Continental Airlines (maybe this explains the ‘former’ part) asserted on Monday that the situation was “an oversale obviously” (it wasn’t). He contended that it was the customer being forced from his seat who was acting in an “immature” manner. That’s pretty much what Munoz also said on Monday in his letter to employees. Can you get a better example of CEO privilege on display?

News media repeated United’s “overbooking” explanation, ad nauseam, despite United’s confirmation that seats were needed for four crew members. Not a routine “oversold” problem. Four employees needed to get from O’Hare to Louisville, and according to Munoz, they didn’t approach the gate until after the flight was fully boarded. You know. Late.

Ethically, the decision to pull four paying customers from their seats was wrong.

Legally, it’s questionable as well.

On Tuesday, the company admitted that the flight was not overbooked.

United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said Tuesday that all 70 seats on United Express Flight 3411 were filled, but the plane was not overbooked as the airline previously reported. Instead, United and regional affiliate Republic Airlines, which operated the flight, selected four passengers to be removed to accommodate crew members needed in Louisville the next day.

Assume for a moment that all of this had happened before passengers were boarded. United’s “denial of boarding” contract provisions apply only to flights that have been oversold.

Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.

United, according to its own policies, had no right to deny anyone boarding so that employees could fly. Especially employees who showed up late to the gate.

However, what took place on Sunday was not denial of boarding.

It was refusal of transport. And United’s Contract of Carriage 21 details the circumstances in which the airline can remove a passenger from one of its planes.  Surprise! So employees can get to work is not on the list. [Screen caps: 1, 2, 3]

Even now, after United stated publicly that the flight was NOT overbooked, news stories are still talking about “overbooked” flights.

Score: United, 1: News media, 0

Missed opportunities for news organizations

No national news report that I have seen has examined United’s contract of carriage, which details the reasons that it can remove a passenger from the plane after (in this case) he has been seated. I know, I know, this would mean that they would have to retract headlines like this one.

No national news report that I have seen has examined why these crew members were trying to take the last flight of the day or why they were late. Had the crew been suddenly assigned a flight out of Kentucky? Do they live (or were they visiting) in Chicago and Louisville was their home base?

This was a crisis communications opportunity…

On Tuesday, Munoz issued a second apology.

Wednesday, Munoz: “this will never happen again.”

If your company does not have a crisis communications plan in place for when (not if, when) a video of something “bad” happening on your watch makes its way to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re the chief communications officer, you need to resign or be fired.

United is the world’s largest airline, in terms of number of destinations served. And it clearly had no such plan in place, despite the infamous leggings incident (a mere two weeks ago).


… which resulted in a huge image problem


However, screwed up communications about a disaster and a CEO with foot-and-mouth (just trust the lawyers to craft the statement) disease is not the problem.



Saying United has a “PR problem” suggests the “solution” is akin to putting some lipstick on that pig.

Modifying external appearance (we might call that sleight of hand) does nothing to change the fact that the pig is still a pig.

United’s problem is not skin-deep. It’s soul deep.

United’s heavy-handed, “you lose your seat” behavior isn’t confined to the midwest or east coast or low-budget tickets. From the LATimes, here’s an incident last week in Hawaii. Geoff Fearns, 59, president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, had a full-fare, first-class ticket on United from Kauai to LA. He boarded and had his complimentary beverage. And then:

… they told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute,” Fearns said. “They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me…. they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”

As others have pointed out, the federal government has allowed airline consolidation to occur, unabated. And, apparently, relatively unregulated, in terms of consumer protection.

In 2014, Tim Wu pointed out that the airline industry – at least in America – is predicated on calculated misery and the profits that ensue from our wish to avoid suffering. It’s not your imagination that seats have gotten smaller and the space between rows, narrower (2014):

The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s. The worst seats today measure either 17 or 17.2 inches, when about 19 was as tight as it got through the 1990s. In fact, even the widest seats for sale in economy today—from 17 to 18.5 inches —would not have been offered several years ago. For comparison, up in the front of the cabin, premium class seating on the Big Three usually measures 21 inches.

I don’t agree with this industry expert, who blames the victim (we with little choice and no bargaining power). Henry H. Harteveldt, the president of the Atmosphere Research Group, told the NYTimes:

Consumers have shown that they’re willing to put up with an awful lot, including lack of legroom, lack of amenities, mediocre or worse customer service, dirty airplanes and more to save money.

Sometimes, you need to fly. Funerals. Family emergencies. In a country with abysmal vacation policies relative to Europe, for example, flying is the only way to “vacation” on the other coast. So you take what’s available. That doesn’t mean you like it.

And those decisions about seat configuration on new planes? They’re made years in advance. Years.

Today, airlines make a substantial chunk of their income by selling services (credit card alliances) and charging fees for everything from checked baggage to a “better” seat (which, as USA Today noted in 2014, is worse than an average seat 20 years ago).

In 2014, Delta and United each made $1 billion on rebooking/change fees alone. Last year, the LATimes reported that 10 of the world’s largest airlines each brought in more than $1 billion solely from fees for things like checked luggage, reserved seats, food, Internet connectivity, and upgrades to more-leg-room in coach. In 2008, only American, Delta and United sucked up more than $1 billion in fees and “ancillary revenue.”

Don’t expect Wall Street to force a change in corporate behavior. UAL closed higher on Thursday 13 April (69.07) than it did the Monday after the leggings incident (68.37).

Airline policies on overbooking, involuntary denial of boarding, and “refusal of transport” (which is what happened in this case) need to be transparent and uniform across airlines.


“PR” can’t “fix” United’s problem.

Neither can that favorite whipping boy, “customer service.”

The only thing that can “fix” United is an introspective examination of organization purpose, which is not to “enhance shareholder value.” (Hint, that’s an outcome, not a purpose.)

The only thing that can “fix” the greed that underlies Sunday’s shocking behavior is a widespread public discussion of realistic returns on investment, the appropriate balance between human dignity and capital. United’s greed is a symptom of a systemic problem, a philosophy not limited to the airline industry.

The only thing that can “fix” the missing balance of power between customers and airlines is a regulatory system (FAA and DOJ) that realizes its mission is to serve the public interest not the capitalist interest. (Not likely in the current Administration, I know, but it was missing from the former one as well, they approved the Continental-United merger. What does that tell you about systemic issues?)

Fundamentally, the fix lies with the collective “us” pushing back in a world that is becoming increasingly undemocratic and grossly unequal.

Stay woke.


Versions of this also appear on Medium and TheModerateVoice.

Postscript: A tweet storm




[1] The Chicago Police Department went even further in dissembling, saying that a passenger “fell.” All three have been placed on leave.


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

4 replies on “United Airlines does not have a “PR” problem”

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