Here’s What United’s Oscar Munoz Should Have Done After Passenger Dragged Off Plane

With the whole world melting down over a United passenger being dragged off a plane, United’s public relations response has been abysmal.

  • They sought to distance themselves pointing out that it’s a United Express flight (operated by Republic Airlines)
  • They apologized that customers has to be re-accommodated rather than that a customer was dragged and bloodied
  • Their response focused on why the customer defied police rather than how a customer service problem became a law enforcement problem.

CEO Oscar Munoz Inaugurates United’s First New Boeing 777-300ER

As I wrote yesterday,

When a crisis event happens, don’t run from it run towards it so critics have nowhere to go.

Munoz shouldn’t say the customer was inconvenienced, he should say it was a terrible, horrible experience. He shouldn’t say it’s upsetting, he’s angry and he’s going to get to the bottom of it. Be active. Show actual concern, don’t be mealy mouthed.

Since United sought to downplay the situation — even as they’re hardly the only ones to blame here — customer outrage grew. Memes like this one spread over the internet, and customers the world over vowed never to fly United (many of whom weren’t already United customers and unclear how many of them will keep their word).

I’ve taken tremendous heat for saying that the police who actually bloodied the passenger deserve the most criticism. And also that the passenger, who was clearly getting hosed being booted from the flight, should have gotten off when the airline ordered him to do so.

I’ve taken that criticism for readers for much the same reason as United. To most people it doesn’t matter whether United followed the rules, that they aren’t the ones who hurt the passenger, or that the only real solution is a change to the culture of security where everything escalates to law enforcement. People are angry at United, and aren’t open to anyone suggesting that United’s blame is being overblown.

My role isn’t to make tell readers what they want to hear, and I’m comfortable with argument and criticism.

United, though, has taken the worst possible approach unless their goal is to stoke the flames of public criticism (which it cannot possibly be). They’re in a tough spot.

  • United doesn’t want to throw its employees (or those of Republic Airlines operating under the United brand) under the bus. United’s internal procedures appear to have been followed, and they’re consistent with what other US airlines do and are following guidelines set by the Department of Transportation.

  • That’s not an excuse because something awful happened to this man, it suggests that instead of blaming the individual employees on that night we should ask tough questions about involuntary denied boarding procedures.

  • United doesn’t want to throw Chicago’s airport police under the bus, that will create a problem for them at a major hub.

There’s an old saying that one bad anecdote makes a regulation and two makes a law, we should be careful of rulemaking from public shock without understanding the consequences of changing the rules.

And we should understand what involuntary denied boarding is, why it happens, and how often — 75% less frequently than before deregulation and less often even as planes have gotten more full.

United needs to quell the hordes, both for their own immediate business needs and to avoid a reaction that brings about bad rules detrimental to customers and to their business.

So what Oscar Munoz should have done this this: offer a clear message of “We messed up. That’s not our employees fault. We need to look at our procedures to make sure this never happens again. We will learn from this, and we will do better.”

He should have said this even though United isn’t solely to blame for what happened, but they’re certainly to blame for their poor crisis communications response.

Now that we’re on day two of the story, and United’s response hasn’t helped, Munoz needs to up the ante and go on some late night talk shows — appearances which will be rebroadcast the next day — and take a lot of ribbing for it while talking about having the best employees in the business, being committed to the best customer service, and promising to ensure the incident doesn’t repeat itself.

Update: Oscar Munoz has a new apology that, I think, strikes the right tone:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.



About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Kacee I never primarily blamed the victim. And my posts have largely blamed the police. My take is different from others who think United is solely at fault. United isn’t blameless here at all, but the officers who responded with excessive force have gone relatively under-criticized. And the culture in aviation of ‘call the cops when a customer complains’ that exists now at all airlines and is supported by the police needs to change.

  2. Well, I’m done coming over to this blog to read or quietly do sign-up links.

    This blog I valued for Gary’s analysis. If his hot take is different than my opinion I can live with it.

    However, he’s shown the inability to fully analyze on this topic when provided with scores and scored of people in comments pointing out specific legal reasons based on the Contract of Carriage WHY United may not have had a legal reason to de-plane the doctor in the first place. Instead, Gary stubbornly digs in and doesn’t offer any specific counter-arguments to the points that are made in this fairly unique case.

    I actually have been most intrigued by the legal reasons (similar to the tragic toddler/alligator liability issue at Disney World), but I guess you won’t find a detailed debate in this aviation blog– just Gary refusing to still point to any specifics or engage the legal points from readers.

    Gary might be a corporate fanboy (credit cards or airlines to get income or access), and I can live with that. But exposing himself as a hack that lazily can’t refute evidence readers have supplied on the topic he’s an “expert” on just shows my I can’t trust his ability to analyze facts on anything else he posts on.

  3. @tom simmons – which arguments do you think i’ve ignored, i’d be happy to engage or point out where i have! I do not receive any income from airlines for what it’s worth.

  4. The passenger should have just left the plain like the other three that where asked to leave but no has a meltdown and caused the airline to have him to be removed. I for one would be happy this guy was not on a flight I was on.

  5. Gary, I cannot understand why every competitor of United’s doesn’t offer an immediate status MATCH (not just a measly “challenge”) to United elites. As a United elite customer, I am now ripe for the plucking. American and Delta, are you listening? Take advantage of my disgust — and that of thousands of others — and woo us away right now! This is your big chance, don’t blow it.

  6. It seems easy for someone who flies First or Business class to say the passenger should have gotten off the plane when asked. How many times does someone in First or Biz get bumped OFF the plane? They usually just get bumped to the lower class, but they still make the flight.
    The real question is “Why is a passenger who has paid for a seat and then seated in that seat being asked to get off the plane?” Surely the airline knew long before it seated paying passengers that it had a problem with too many people booked on the flight, for whatever reason. So why seat them? Why not hold people in the lounge until the people who NEED to get on the flight are on and seated (i.e. United Crew); then seat the paying passengers in the seats that are still open.
    And could someone please tell me what I am actually paying for when I book and pay for a seat months in advance? Is there no contract with the airline? Am I just buying a lottery ticket that allows me to fly if I win?

  7. Gary,

    Frankly, I think you missed sales and marketing 101. Good or even great customers result from companies that empower their employees to make decisions on the spot. When a flight is getting ready to take off on a Sunday night, with limited chain of command infrastructure available, you empower an employee to make good decisions. The best scenario would have had the gate agent asking people to volunteer to get off by raising the financial ante (with real money, not United credits) or made the decision to hire a lime to take the boarding crew to Midway, and take the SWA flight to Louisville.

    As the late great Jan Carlsen of SAS once said when going through a stretch of employees pissing off the customers: “If you don’t think customers are important, try going without them for 30 days.”

  8. Clearly the passenger did the right thing. Not only will he settle for a hefty amount for the assault the public defamation of character and the lost work, he brought attention to the “bullying” that the airline industry uses daily to force us into compliance.

    Strong work Dr. Dao! Looks like you can retire before your 70 th birthday!

  9. You are correct in saying that United grossly mishandled this PR affair. They would have been much better off doing what you said. But NOW they should add – We will never ask people to leave a plane once it has been boarded. A large part of the problem lay with the United crew that did not notify the gate until they had already boarded the passengers. Also, the airlines (all of them) want to be a chintzy as possible and offer the least compensation. Federal rules need to be changed. Rather than stopping at 4X ticket price for a 2-hour delay, it should go on to say 8X the ticket price for a 4-hour delay, 16X ticket price for an 8-hour delay, and 32X ticket price for a 16- hour delay, and 64X ticket price for a 24-hour delay. This would up the ante and would have almost guaranteed that United would have sweetened the offers to get four REAL volunteers. The other thing that airlines could do is sell you “boarding insurance” – you have a place you absolutely have to be? Pay an extra $20 and you don’t get kicked off. If you are too cheap to pay the extra, then take your chances and take the Federal payout.

  10. You (and a lot of other media) keep saying that united offered $800 (and could have taken Uber for $300). United did not offer CASH – they offered a voucher for flights on their airline. I don’t think Uber would take that. If it was that easy, why did United just not call an Uber ride to drive the passengers to Louisville, rather than say you will have to wait 20 hours for the next available flight? They (and most other airlines) don’t care about customer service – they admit they use a computer program to get the most money from the people who fly. I recently flew my first (and last) flight on Spirit Airlines. I got a hard seat that did not recline, 28 inches of legroom, only 40 lbs allowed in checked luggage, and add-on prices that destroyed the “savings” from going with them. I always try Southwest Airlines first because I LOVE their free checked luggage. United may not lose much in stock share price, but I guarantee you that, at least in the near future, they will lose bookings, and probably will have to discount prices to bring people back onto their planes – so they will lose profit. They chose to go the cheap route to settle this issue, and, to steal a quote “they chose poorly”.

  11. I completely understand “involuntary boarding” policies as a frequent flyer and that novice flyers may not but nevertheless, but boarding is the operative word here… Why was he allowed to board and then physically removed from the plane…Why is that point not be discussed???

    I think this is partially United’s fault for letting him board knowing 4 crew members had to board; aren’t volunteers pulled before a plane is loaded…so is United really not to blame here??? The rent a cop’s actions are deplorable and I hope they are held liable and accountable…

  12. Wow, Gary. Do you really want to have your reputation tied to this incident? There is absolutely no excuse for a company to blame their systems and rules for a customer service incident such as this one. I can’t say that strongly enough. That is the ultimate cop-out in our modern age. The only reason security, inappropriately dressed as police according to city rules, showed up on the plane is that they were directed by United or their contractor. The employee who did that should be fired! That is the first time I have ever written that.

    This whole mess could have been handled so easily. One, simply ASK the customers on the plane nicely for help. This is the Midwest for heaven’s sake! Second, pair that plea with a sweetener with no upper limit. I always like to watch the passengers discreetly asking cabin crew or gate agents how much for their seat. This whole thing would have taken 5 minutes. Instead we have an incident that will likely have an impact — hopefully positive — on the industry itself. Any other explanation or spin on this incident simply muddies the issue and shows how warped this industry is.

    BTW, don’t say things such as the plane would lose its take off slot. O’Hare is my home airport. Take off and landing slots and gate assignments are always missed here.


  13. Jaime,
    Agreed. So many failures at so many points. It was United, the agents, the poor business practices and an attempt to bully a passenger using airport security. Doesn’t seem like there was a reasonable attempt to resolve or defuse this situation without force.

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