Image: Marcelo Cáceres

Image: Marcelo Cáceres

APEX Insight: APEX Media Spotlight gathers different perspectives on a passenger experience announcement, product launch or issue from top industry sources. In this installment, we’ve scoured the media for reactions to United Airlines’ decision to forcibly remove a passenger from a flight last Sunday.

United Airlines was heavily criticized on social media after video footage of a passenger, later identified as David Dao, being dragged down the aisle of an aircraft went viral. On Tuesday, the Chicago-based carrier’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, defended the actions of staff after Dao, who refused to give up his seat voluntarily, was forcibly removed by law enforcement from an overbooked flight on Sunday. “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” said Munoz in a letter to United employees. He also described the passenger’s behavior as “disruptive and belligerent.”

With nearly a billion dollars wiped off United’s share price and ongoing worldwide media coverage, the airline chief’s tone was markedly different hours later. On Tuesday afternoon, Munoz released another statement outlining that the airline was taking “full responsibility” for the “truly horrific” event. He also promised a comprehensive review of crew movement and policies for handling oversold flights and incentivizing volunteers. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard … No one should ever be mistreated this way.” By Wednesday afternoon, a full refund had been offered to all passengers on United Express Flight 3411.

What the Media Says

While social media was rife with indignation, as users expressed horror, disbelief and outrage over #BumpGate, the media dug into the legal and safety issues pertaining to the incident, considered the role of public relations in crisis management and suggested that this event may be indicative of troubling societal trends.

Overlooking Overbooking

Wall Street Journal travel editor Scott McCartney has written several articles about the incident. In the first of these, he raises the following safety issue: “Airplanes are dictatorships, for safety reasons … Bottom line: If a crewmember says you have to get off a plane, federal law says you have to comply.” In another piece, he suggests that all airlines are essentially utilitarian when it comes to operations. “Bumping four passengers so [United] can get four crew members in place and avoid canceling a flight with 70 passengers the following morning makes sense in an airline operations center trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Customers don’t always see both sides of that calculation.” Delta Air Lines similarly had to bump passengers over the weekend because of storm-related operational problems, but managed to entice spring break travelers to give up seats on some overbooked flights with generous gift cards. “United stuck to offers of airline vouchers, which are far less appealing,” he also opined on Tuesday.

Brett Snyder, aka The Cranky Flier, also defends the practice of overbooking. “On the whole, the airlines make more money overselling flights than they lose paying out compensation. And this actually does help keep fares lower,” he argues. “If airlines couldn’t oversell flights, they would generate less revenue overall and have to find a way to recoup those costs. You can connect the dots on what that means.”

“Lex,” the Financial Times business and finance column, takes a similar approach. “Simply sweetening the trade of giving up a seat for more cash (the maximum payout is $1,350) might have avoided a public relations disaster for United,” it suggests. “Instead a system that broadly works, and had been working better, has been discredited by human stupidity.” A similar suggestion is presented by USA Today. “A far wiser course would have been to offer $1,000 or more until someone else got off voluntarily, presumably happy with the extra money,” writes its editorial board.

Reputational Damage?

According to Financial Times business commentator Andrew Hill, “[Munoz’s] email to staff laid far too much blame on the passenger, and not enough on the Chicago airport security officers who extracted him from the plane.” While noting that United was acting within its legal rights, plenty of media opinion pieces have pointed out the perceived lack of sensitivity with which the events were handled. A Chicago Tribune editorial on Wednesday ended by suggesting, “This will go down in business history as one of the worst-ever customer service experiences. To retrain employees and appease angry customers, Munoz may have to do something as dramatic as the Starbucks shutdown-and-reboot.”

Likewise, The Economist writes, “Such incidents highlight the gap between the stories firms tell about themselves and what consumers see.” The weekly magazine illustrates this by pointing out that not long after Munoz’s initial statement was posted on United’s Facebook page, it posted a picture of a child cuddling a company airport therapy dog. “Travelers will be telling a story about United for some time. It won’t be the one about the puppies,” the article concludes.

An Evolving Plot

The Courier-Journal, a regional newspaper based in Louisville, Kentucky, where David Dao resides, was widely criticized for publishing an article that brought attention to his background, including a criminal offense dating from 2005. Joel Christopher, the executive editor of the newspaper, defends the article. “This is an individual, who because of his past case, is known to people in the area,” he explains. “Referring to him without referring to [his past] would be highly unusual.”

Regarding the ethics of such coverage, Indira Lakshmanan, a columnist for The Boston Globe, told Poynter that Dao’s criminal record was “not relevant to this story because he hasn’t been charged with being disruptive towards United Airlines officials or fellow passengers.” Writing for Madrid-based daily El País, Cristina Galindo notes that Dao’s actions could have inspired similar acts of resistance from other passengers in the future, were it not for his transformation from victim to villain by sections of the media.

The View From China and the Gulf

With the video of the incident having been widely shared on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, the South China Morning Post also published an editorial on the controversy: “The prevalence of smartphones means companies cannot afford to make mistakes. Too late, the airline has learned a lesson about how influential social media is.”

Writing for The National, an Abu Dhabi-based state-owned English-language daily newspaper, Sean Cronin raises the question of how the incident could affect the dynamic of the open skies dispute between United and Emirates. “The question for United is how to repair that damage, restore passenger confidence and effectively compete in an ongoing marketing scrap with its Dubai rival that appears to be landing more punches.”

Bigger Picture

The New York Times’ editorial board argues that consolidation in the US airline industry has been bad for passengers. “There is no mystery why air travel has gotten so ugly. Four large airlines — American, Southwest, Delta and United — commanded nearly 69 percent of the domestic air travel market in 2016, up from about 60 percent in 2012, according to government data.”

Helaine Olen suggests, in the New York Times, that this incident reflects a wider trend in society. “It seemed, in the way these viral sensations frequently do, to capture something about the way we live now. All too often we feel powerless, both politically and economically,” she ponders. “So what’s this got to do with United? Well, most of us don’t encounter the government on a daily basis. We do, however, live life as consumers. And our treatment is both increasingly disrespectful and reflective of our society’s growing income divide. In 2017, it often seems that the customer is the least important part of the transaction — unless he or she is paying top, top dollar.”

Ari is the digital content strategist at APEX Media.