Sometimes the Best PR is Simply Saying Sorry

Why United needed to just apologize

By Brett Spielberg, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc.

I hate flying. It’s cramped, impersonal, uncomfortable and anxiety inducing. But if you listen to seasoned commercial pilots, they will tell you that you don’t actually hate flying, you hate not being able to afford flying private or first class at the very least.

Brief summary for those who’ve been living under a rock this week: First Pepsi made an ad so tone deaf we thought we found the PR blunder of the year. Then a man refused to be de-boarded from a United flight from Chicago to Nashville, and airport police did their best impression of Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. And then President Trump’s press secretary forgot that Hitler killed millions of people using poison gas while trying to make a metaphor, but I digress.

We live in a post-9/11 society; refusing to comply with instructions on a plane is one step from a terroristic threat. Most pilots worth their weight in salt would refuse to leave the gate if a passenger isn’t complying with flight staff. It’s not like you can simply pull the plane over at 35,000 feet in the air when an unruly passenger throws a fit.

One can argue the United incident should never have been allowed to escalate to the point that it did. United personnel could have offered the maximum legal limit in cash as an inducement for this man to deplane, but they didn’t.

One can argue that when he indicated he was a doctor who needed to get back to his patients the next day and the next United flight to his destination was 21 hours later, United could have investigated whether another airline had a flight or connecting flights that would get him home to his destination, but they didn’t.

One can further argue that when this man indicated he was a doctor who needed to get back to patients, United personnel could have “called an audible” and asked if there was a fifth passenger who might want the $800-$1,350 to deplane, but as far as we know that also didn’t happen.

Given what did transpire, United should have issued the standard statement to diffuse the situation and let the media cycle play its course. You would think United’s communications team would have seen it that way. It should have been PR 101. Heck, I’ll even write the statement for them.

“We are appalled by the abhorrent behavior that took place today. No customer of United should ever be treated like this, and we will not tolerate this behavior. We will conduct a thorough investigation of this incident, do everything possible to make things right with the affected passenger, and take all necessary steps to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

Now that statement isn’t perfect, and there’s a reason for that. United’s staff, based on what we now know of United’s company policy, didn’t do anything wrong; they were simply following that policy, and the man refused to comply. They alerted authorities, as they are trained to do, and then they got the hell out of the way. Remember, it was not United’s personnel who dragged this individual off the plane, it was Chicago airport authority police.

United, like any company, has a business to run and based on their company policy, requested four passengers, supposedly by random selection, to deplane. Not surprisingly, none of the four requested to deplane were first class passengers. Companies make the vast majority of their revenue from the distinct minority of first and business class passengers; the rest of us are just there to fill the plane.

When you get into the economics of aviation, the reality is flight was always a luxury. It would be the equivalent of thousands of dollars for a ticket going back to the early days of commercial flight, and there was no first class, business class, or coach.

Then the industry changed. Flights at odd hours with multiple layovers that primarily carried mail started carrying passengers for cheaper fares. Businesspeople buying tickets at the last minute were now charged a different rate than tourists purchasing in advance. Airlines started enhancing the front cabins to justify the increased cost while packing people in like sardines to coach.

This passenger was admittedly unruly. But the ensuing interaction between him and first United personnel, and then airport police, created an untenable situation. To the entire world of people who fly coach once or twice a year, this was horrifying and likely destroyed any faith they had in the United brand.

And the reality is, if the airline could have even just pretended to show compassion initially, had they taken any of the actions I suggested previously, they would have probably gotten through it relatively unscathed. But their unshakable stance, based solely on economics and poor PR judgement, turned a bad video that would have been a day’s news cycle into an international incident with real repercussions.