United Airlines' PR disaster has reached new heights with the hashtag #UnitedJourney making its rounds online. This is following a video that showed a 69-year-old man being dragged out from a United Airlines plane, to clear a seat for airline staff.
The 31-second clip was taken from an aisle seat on a commercial airplane that appears to be preparing to take flight. In the video, three men wearing radio equipment and security jackets grabbed a passenger and dragged his arms toward the front of the plane. The passenger was initially screaming but then appeared to have lost half of his conscious when he was dragged out.
Audra D. Bridges, who posted the footage on Facebook, wrote, "United airlines overbooked the flight. They were offering $800, but couldn't get us on a flight until tomorrow at 3 pm. They randomly selected people to kick off so their crew could have a seat." Her post added that he was a doctor and had to be at the hospital in the morning and as such, he did not want to get off.
"They told him he had been selected randomly to be taken off the flight. He said he wasn't going to. He was talking to his lawyer on the phone. He was refusing to get off, but this (the violent drag) was very unnecessary."
United's response: Too little too late?
A United spokesperson confirmed in an email to several media outlets that a passenger had been taken off a flight in Chicago.
"Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities."
United has also put up a Twitter post on the matter:
On Facebook, United put up the exact same statement. This unfortunately did not sit well with some of our PR industry friends.
According to one PR professional, who was formerly working in the aviation industry, she said that during a crisis such as this, speedy response is vital. The current response, she added, is not sufficient or authentic.
"I understand Twitter might not leave room for a lengthy response but this could be better explained on Facebook. Facebook allows for more lengthy posts and in a crisis like this, you need to address the situation and give the public proper explanation," she said. Going forward, she urges that while the investigation is going on, the brand needs to give periodic updates.
"There will be backlash but the brand needs to have a more sincere attitude," she said.
The CEO's response
United's CEO Oscar Munoz has also responded to the happening, calling it as an "upsetting event". "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers," he said in the statement.
Yet Munoz, in a letter to employees on Monday evening, claimed that employees "followed established procedures" when removing a passenger from a plane because it was overbooked, and calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent". This internal letter was later obtained by CNBC and published online.
Munoz acknowledged to employees in the letter that the company could learn lessons from the incident, but said: "I emphatically stand behind all of you."
Tony Chow, regional director, creative & content marketing, Asia Pacific at Marriott International, said the email further harmed the brand’s already damaged image.
"As the CEO, he should acknowledge the horrible incident, and ensure appropriate action will be taken after a thorough investigation is been made. He should also avoid commendation of airline staff actions, but instead take responsibilities for their actions."
And it seems like the response did make things worse. United's once-promising social media campaign and tagline, #UnitedJourney, that built around the campaign to encourage passengers to share their trip photos, has since became the best spot for trolling.
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