Should you be on a social media sabbatical, United Airlines has once again ignited the twitterverse with a decidedly unfriendly action against a passenger Sunday. It then followed through with tone-deaf responses to the situation from the CEO down.
“It all started with an overbooked passenger jet preparing to leave Chicago for Louisville, Ky.,” reports Hugo Martin for the Los Angeles Times. “It ended with a passenger, who said he was a doctor who needed to get home, being dragged off the plane and left bloodied and muttering repeatedly, ‘Just kill me.’”
“United was trying to make room for four employees of a partner airline, meaning four people had to get off the flight to Louisville,” explain the Associated Press’ Caryn Rousseau and Don Babwin.
“At first the airline asked for volunteers, offering $400 and then when that didn't work, $800 per passenger to relinquish a seat. When no one voluntarily came forward, United selected four passengers at random. Three got off but the fourth, a man who said he was a doctor and needed to get home to treat patients on Monday, refused,” Rousseau and Babwin continue.
“Several passengers recorded the incident on their phones and posted video on social media showing three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers dragging the man, who has not been identified, down the aisle by the arms and legs while other passengers shout in protest. He continued to resist after he was removed and ran back onto the airplane, face bloodied from the encounter,” report Christina Zdanowicz and Emanuella Grinberg for CNN.
“Every other passenger on that aircraft was a potential citizen journalist. What's astonishing is that United responded so poorly to an absolutely predictable reputational risk,” John Bailey, a specialist in crisis communications, tells the BBC’s Leisha Chi.
“But businesses generally are struggling to adapt to the new communications landscape. Research suggests that it takes companies an average of 21 hours to issue meaningful external communications in a crisis situation, leaving them open to ‘trial by Twitter.’”
Tyler Bridges, one of those citizen journalists/jurists, tells the New York Times’ Daniel Victor and Matt Stevens in a telephone interview that “it felt like something the world needed to see.” Particularly annoying, Mr. Bridges said, was that the airline was looking for extra seats for some of its employees,” Victor and Stephens write.
And Bridges tells the AP: “We almost felt like we were being taken hostage. We were stuck there. You can't do anything as a traveler. You're relying on the airline.”
If the incident itself weren’t bad enough, United spokesman Charlie Hobart’s voluntarily volatile and widely ridiculed explanation was that when no passengers volunteered to get off the plane, it was “forced into an ‘involuntary de-boarding situation.’”
“United CEO Oscar Munoz then made things worse with a statement of Orwellian doublespeak,” writesLos Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. “‘This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,’ he said. ‘I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,’ whatever that means.”
“According to CNBC, Munoz followed up Monday evening with a letter to employees defending the airline’s ground staff and describing the still-unidentified passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent.’ He said the airline agents ‘were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight,’” Hiltzik continues.
Meanwhile, “the Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that the incident ‘was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure,’ and an officer had been placed on leave pending a review of the episode. The department declined to identify the officer,” writes Avi Selk for the Washington Post.
United last found itself in the social-media sights of celebrities and everymen alike on March 26 when a gate agent barred two girls from boarding a flight because they girls were wearing leggings that did not comport with its dress code for “pass travelers.”
Meanwhile, ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel “spent most of his monologue Monday on United Airlines’ PR head wound, and helpfully suggested a new slogan for the company: ‘F— you,’” writes Ross A. Lincoln for The Wrap. “The monologue ended with a fake commercial for United in which the company brags about its customer service in light of the scandal. Made to look like the pre-flight videos shown to passengers, a flight attendant lays down the law,” he continues.
“We’re United Airlines,” she says. “You do what we say when we say, and there won’t be a problem. If we say you fly, you fly. If not, tough s—. Give us a problem, and we’ll drag your ass off the plane. And if you do this, we’ll beat you so badly you’ll be using your own face as a flotation device.”
USA Today’s editorial advice to CEO Munoz et al. was a bit more somber: “Ummm, how about an abject apology to everyone involved, and a vow to teach employees how to handle customers, not manhandle them?”