United Airlines public relations nightmare: 5 reasons why it won’t really change how airlines and customers treat each other

April 12, 2017

by John Larson

United Airlines

United Airlines has lost millions of dollars and the trust of many of its customers and those who travel because of the way the company handled passenger Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old Kentucky resident who was forcibly removed by law enforcement when he refused to voluntarily give up his seat on United flight 3411 going from Chicago to Louisville on April 9, 2017.¬† United had requested that four passengers volunteer to give up their seats after four United employees showed up needing the seats to get to a required destination. After none of the flight’s passengers volunteered to give up their seats with voucher and compensation incentives, Dao was one of four passengers randomly selected to be removed involuntarily.

Videos of the incident that were taken by airline passengers show a screaming Dao being dragged off the plane with his mouth bloodied. He apparently sustained the injuries when his refusal to leave the plane resulted in an aggressive, physical altercation. The three other passengers who were involuntarily removed for the same reason left peacefully. In the end, although Dao was seen running back on the plane, he was not allowed to board the flight.

Countless people have expressed outrage at United and how the incident was handled, and they don’t think it’s enough that United has made multiple apologies and offered ticket reimbursement for all the passengers on the flight. There have been people calling for United CEO Oscar Munoz to be fired, for people to boycott United, and for United to be sued. Three of the law-enforcement employees involved in the altercation have already been suspended. These employees are not police officers but are security personnel employed by the Chicago Department of Aviation who were called in by the United flight crew who said that Dao needed to be removed from the plane.

There has been a lot of analysis about what United and/or Dao should have done to prevent the incident. And it’s opened a floodgate of long-simmering anger that people have toward airlines and the declining quality of customer service while airlines continue to increase their fees. Many people have brought Dao’s race/ethnicity and his criminal record (for illegal prescriptions) into the discussion, but in the end, he represents what can happen to any airline passenger under the same unfortunate circumstances and decisions.

Despite all the damage done, United Airlines will survive this scandal. The short-term effect is that airlines will probably improve procedures on how to handle overbooking, bumped passengers on to other flights, and removing people who refuse to de-board a plane for whatever reason. Some smaller airlines that have better reputations in customer service will probably see an increase in business, but not enough to surpass dominant U.S. airline companies such as United and American. The long-term effect is that the airline business will go on as usual, and here’s why:

1. Everything that United did was legal in most airlines’ customer policies. As has been pointed out in many news reports about the scandal, people who buy airplane tickets agree to the legal terms of service (the fine print on airline tickets that most people don’t read), which includes the disclosure that the flight is never guaranteed as advertised. Delays, cancellations, overbooking and being a passenger who is considered a “flight risk” can all result in a passenger not being allowed to be on that flight as originally scheduled.

2. In a post-9/11 world, airline passengers have to be careful about how their words and actions are perceived by airline employees and other authorities. Passengers involved in altercations on a plane, even verbal altercations, can be labeled a “flight risk” and can be forcibly removed. People who are suspected of being a danger¬†or being a threat to employees and other passengers, even by joking about terrorism, can be forcibly removed. People who are disturbingly intoxicated or need immediate medical attention can be forcibly removed. Passengers are more likely to be blamed if they do not peacefully cooperate with authorities from the airline or airport.

As unfair as it may sound, this is today’s reality of flying on any airline. How the airlines treat customers who become “difficult” is a matter of debate. Most people agree that United should have handled the Dr. Dao situation better, once it became clear how upset he was becoming when he was asked to leave his seat. A smarter and better-trained flight crew would have immediately diffused the situation by upping the incentives for another passenger to calmly leave the plane instead of Dao. But once Dao’s demeanor became highly agitated and uncooperative (which can automatically get a passenger labeled as “belligerent”) and once the altercation became physical, it was unlikely that the authorities were going to let him back on the plane.

Even though Munoz said in an ABC News interview that United will never again call law enforcement on a paying customer who has already boarded a plane, it’s hard to believe that this policy will be permanent in a world where there is terrorism and other crimes committed on airplanes and in airports. Airlines and airports still have to bring in law enforcement to deal with people who are suspected of being a physical danger to passengers and employee. This statement from Munoz appears to be United shifting the blame on airport security instead of taking steps to improve its booking policies to prevent re-accommodated customers from getting upset in the first place.

3. The scandal will not improve overall customer service from airlines. Flights will still be late and overbooked. Perks that used to be included with seating in the coach area (free meals, free blankets and pillows, free movies) are not coming back for almost all airlines. And airline food will never be up to most restaurants’ standards.

4. Despite calls to boycott United, many people who have flown United in the past will still consider booking a United flight sometime in the future if it means it will save them money. United has no doubt permanently lost many customers, but studies have shown that people will overlook bad experiences with an airline if they can save money either on a plane ticket or through rewards/frequent flier programs. Even though many people are sympathetic to Dr. Dao, the harsh reality is that people will still fall back into old habits when it comes to their airline preferences. For most airline customers, it’s not so much a matter of brand loyalty and choosing the most “ethical” airline, but it’s about convenience and getting the best deal. And with airline mergers happening more frequently in the past decade, people’s choices have becoming increasingly limited in which airlines to use. United will still be one of the dominant airline companies, long after this scandal has passed.

5. The scandal will not give passengers an excuse to go against airline rules in order to get their way. People who are foolish enough to think that the Dr. Dao/United Airlines incident now gives them permission to cause disruptions or delay a flight as a protest against an airline’s rules and policies will also find themselves removed from the flight and, in some extreme cases, banned by the airline. The best way that customers can protest against a company is to peacefully take their business elsewhere and let the offending company know it.

April 14, 2017 UPDATE: An attorney representing Dr. Dao held a press conference on April 14 to announce that Dao had two of his teeth knocked out, a broken nose and a concussion as a result of the altercation on United Airlines. The attorney also stated that Dao will probably file a lawsuit.

In addition, as stated previously in this article, the short-term effects have already started to take place.

  • United Airlines has announced that it is now requiring crew members to be booked on a flight at least 60 minutes before the flight’s departure time.
  • American Airlines has changed its booking policy to state that paying passengers cannot be bumped from a flight for re-accommodation purposes once they have been seated on the flight.
  • Delta has increased the monetary amount that it will offer to bumped passengers. Gate employees can now offer up to $2,000 (an increase from the previous maximum of $800), while a supervisor can offer up to $9,900 (an increase from the previous maximum of $1,350).

None of these airlines has pledged to improve customer service in other areas.

April 27, 2017 UPDATE: United Airlines has reached an out-of-court settlement with Dr. Dao. Get more details here.

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