Thoughts on the United Airlines Fiasco

United Airlines is facing a major public relations crisis. Viral videos are going around showing a paying passenger, Dr. David Dao, being violently assaulted by airport security, and his limp body being dragged off the plane.

I thought this would be a good teaching opportunity on how to handle a situation when you (or your organization) makes a mistake.

(Incidentally, the difference between a mistake versus a crisis is the size of the audience concerned about the mistake.)

The three rules to follow include:

  1. Emotionally connect with your audience first before doing anything else (even if they are technically wrong or over-reacting).
  2. Accept full ownership of the problem. Whether or not the problem was fully your fault, state that it is your responsibility and you will fix it.
  3. State what you will do to fix this problem and when you’ll do it. (Then actually do it.)

I’ve listed these steps in order of importance.

Let me walk you through the rationale for each step.

1) Emotionally connect with your audience first before doing anything else (even if they are technically wrong or over-reacting).

As human beings, we are emotional beings. This is neither a good or a bad thing; simply a true thing. Ignore this truism at your own peril.

When a crisis occurs, people are emotionally outraged because there’s a gross violation of trust and/or expectations.

During a crisis, the first thing people look for is someone to TRUST.

It is very hard to trust the leader of the organization that caused the crisis, unless he or she mirrors the emotional outrage of his audience.

In the case of the United Airlines CEO, he failed to do this in his initial apology and in his letter to all employees regarding this incident.

As viral videos of Dr. David Dao circulated the internet showing his bloodied face and limp body being dragged off the airplane, the CEO apologized for having to “re-accommodate” him on another flight.

While “re-accommodate” might be the legally correct description, the emotional perception is that United Airlines beat a passenger to a bloody pulp and dragged his carcass off the plane.

In a letter to all employees, the CEO described the incident as being caused by a passenger that was “disruptive and belligerent.”

The fact the physical altercation was technically caused by airport security, not United Airlines, is completely irrelevant emotionally.

Dr. Dao reportedly suffered a concussion, a broken nose and lost two front teeth during the “re-accommodation.” Notice the emotional incongruence between the severity of injuries, which are consistent with the video, versus the euphemism “re-accommodation."

Forty-eight hours later, a video surfaced showing that Dr. Dao was not belligerent. When asked to get off the plane, he simply declined. His logic was: "I paid for the ticket. I’m in the seat. I’m not leaving."

Airline travels are governed by something called a “contract of carriage.” This is the agreement between you and a U.S. airline that is mutually agreed upon when you pay for a ticket.  Legally the contract of carriage that governs U.S. airline tickets does allow the airline to remove a passenger that is disruptive, belligerent and a threat to passenger safety from an aircraft.

I read the relevant sections of the United Airlines contract of carriage.  The contract does have provisions for denying boarding when a flight is oversold.

But in this case, the flight was not oversold so those rules do not apply. The number of tickets sold did not exceed the number of seats on the plane.

(At the last minute, United wanted to fly employees of another airline to the same destination, and wanted to remove passengers from the plane in order to do so.)

Assuming the plane was oversold, the contract does allow United Airlines (and most airlines) to involuntarily not allow you to board the plane.

But, the terms of the contract do not allow United to remove you from a plane involuntarily after you’re already on board... unless you’re “disruptive and belligerent.”

2) Accept full ownership of the problem. Whether or not the problem was fully your fault, state that it is your responsibility to fix it.

Dr. Dao’s multiple injuries were not caused by United Airlines employees.

They were caused by a member of the airport’s security team.

(My hypothesis is that that particular employee went overboard by using unnecessary and excessive violence. When was the last time you fell, from a seated position, got a concussion, lost two front teeth, and broke your nose?)

But, it doesn’t matter.

It’s your company’s name on the plane. United Airlines.

As the leader, oftentimes mistakes may not be fully your fault, but they are fully your responsibility.

* Re-read that last sentence. It’s profoundly significant.

(This is the burden of leadership. It’s called a "burden" for a reason.)

In the CEO’s third communication about this incident, he finally accepted responsibility for “forcibly removing” Dr. Dao from the plane.

But by then it’s too late, because the CEO didn’t follow Rule #1 — connect emotionally with your audience.

At this point, the full apology seems insincere.

You weren’t actually sorry when the incident happened.

You’re sorry after the stock market value of your company dropped by $950 million.

3) State what you will do to fix this problem and when you’ll do it. (Then actually do it.)

After you’ve followed the first two rules, state what you will do to fix the problem. Explain when you will do it. Then do it. This is the best you can do in a difficult situation. In many cases, you will be given a fair chance to solve the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If you’ve disregarded the first two rules, especially the first one, nobody is going to believe you nor care about your plan for corrective action.

The CEO promised to investigate, re-consider all policies, and to report back publicly by April 30.

For a Fortune 500 company, 17 days is a reasonable time to conduct such analysis.

But, because the CEO has lost all credibility, such a reasonable plan of action isn’t being accepted by members of the public.

(As a side note, U.S. politicians sensing the emotional dissatisfaction of the American public are now indicating they will conduct an independent Federal investigation into the incident. This would have been less likely to happen if the CEO had established his emotional credibility immediately.)

So what should the CEO have said instead?

Here’s what I would have communicated at the immediate outset of the incident.

"Earlier today, on United Flight #3411, we had a situation involving a passenger being violently removed from our aircraft after boarding.

After watching videos of the incident, I was beyond horrified that such a thing could happen to another human being.

When I realized that this happened on one of our planes, I was at a loss for words.

Clearly something went very, very wrong.

First, I am attempting to locate and reach out to the passenger in the video to ensure he is getting any medical treatment he may need.

Second, I want to apologize deeply to the passenger in the video and to all the passengers aboard the flight.

This should have never happened. This is NOT what United Airlines is about. We screwed up... badly. We will make it right.

Third, I will be conducting a thorough investigation to determine what went wrong and completely rethinking our policies, procedures, and how we partner with local law enforcement.

Many of you have shared your outrage at what happened. I share that outrage.

This outcome was completely unacceptable.

This will not be allowed to happen again... ever.

I will be disclosing the results of our investigation, our plans to prevent this from happening again, and our progress in implementing that plan.

I will be providing updates to you at least every seven days until we have corrected this problem fully."

Had the United Airlines CEO said something along these lines (and meant it), I think the outcome would have been very different.

People are willing to forgive mistakes. We all know mistakes happen.

What people are not willing to forgive is when people who make mistakes avoid taking responsibility for them.

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2 comments… add one
  • Sumit Pawar Apr 14, 2017, 4:54 am

    Thanks Victor, for sharing it.

  • Morten Dec 5, 2017, 5:21 am

    Victor Cheng For President! 😀

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