United Experiences Turbulence at it Attempts to Quell PR Crisis

By Lily Wang

On Sunday, April 9th, a United Airlines passenger was violently dragged off an overbooked flight. The victim, 69-year-old Dr. David Dao, suffered a concussion, broke his nose, and lost two teeth. After a short video of the shocking incident was released online, the internet took up arms in outrage against the airline company. Many people posted cut-up United loyalty cards while others expressed their sympathies for Dr. Dao. Unfortunately, United CEO Oscar Munoz did not address the issue with the same empathy as the rest of the world. Later that Monday, Munoz released a statement apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” customers. His corporate-speak and insensitive tone further ignited anger among Americans and sparked some accusations that racism led Dao to be targeted because he was Chinese. The company also issued an incorrect response that blamed Dao for being “disruptive and belligerent.”

Munoz’s ignorance of how wrongly Dao was treated, paired with United’s overall failure to put its customers first and inappropriate handling of the crisis, has resulted in a lot of internal churning for the company. Munoz must fix relations with not only Dr. Dao, but also the army of current and potential customers that back him.

To avoid tarnishing its brand image and losing even more customers, United recently embarked on an apology tour. In an attempt to make amends, Munoz had a change of heart in his most recent statement last Tuesday. He admitted to taking “full responsibility” for the catastrophe and rightfully labeled Dao’s mistreatment as a “truly horrific event.” On Good Morning America the next morning, Munoz confessed to feeling shame after watching what happened to Dao and promised that it would never happen again. United announced later that night that it would offer a full refund to every passenger on the flight.

Furthermore, United took added steps to change its policy to help avoid future crises like this one. The airline stated that passengers already boarded on flights should never have to give up their seats, except for safety and security reasons. Additionally, to reduce overbooked flights, United plans to create a special call-center team that can develop solutions for overbooking problems. If the company had instilled a system like this earlier, the crisis may have been avoided entirely. More significantly, United vowed to dramatically increase the maximum amount of money that passengers can receive if they volunteer to give up their seats during overbooked flights from $1,350 to $10,000.   

Although the changes that United is making are steering the company in the right direction, there is still much to be desired. Whether Munoz’s sudden change of heart was actually sincere or a PR ploy may never be known. However, the increase in possible compensation and more genuine apologizes from Munoz are starting to quell the crisis. United has taken full responsibility for what happened on the flight, an acceptance of corporate accountability that should warrant praise. In the end, the airline company and Dao have reached an amicable resolution. And with both parties ready to put the unfortunate incident behind them, maybe the rest of the world can be too.