Timeline of a crisis: United Airlines

United Airlines suffered the mother of all social media crises when a video of law enforcement officers dragging a passenger forcibly off one of its planes went viral.

Timeline of a crisis: United Airlines

April 10
Outrage explodes on social media after a video emerges of a passenger being violently removed from United Airlines Flight 3411 bound for Louisville, Kentucky on April 9.

Four Chicago Department of Aviation security officers rip the passenger out of his seat, bloodying him in the process.

The passenger, later identified as a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor from Elizabethtown, Kentucky named David Dao, had refused to give up his seat for United employees when Flight 3411 was overbooked.

United CEO Oscar Munoz issues a statement in which he apologizes for having "re-accommodated" four passengers, including Dao.

Munoz sends an internal letter that quickly goes public reaffirming his support for employees while describing Dao as "disruptive and belligerent."

Pundits, PR pros, and meme-makers alike savage the tone-deaf statements.

April 11
Parent company United Continental Holdings kicks off a turbulent day on Wall Street with nearly $1 billion axed from its market value.

After Munoz issues another apology, saying he’s sorry and pledging to conduct a review and release the findings by April 30, the stock recovers. However, market value is still down $250 million.

April 12
Details about Dao’s past begin to circulate through the media, but the court of public opinion still rules against United.

Munoz appears on Good Morning America to issue another apology, saying the video made him feel ashamed.

Calls for a boycott mount as observers in China, where United derives $2 billion in revenue, and elsewhere speculate the Flight 3411 incident was racially motivated.

April 13
Tom Demetrio, a Chicago-based attorney representing Dao, holds a press conference and denounces United for treating passengers like "cattle."

Demetrio explains Dao suffered concussion, a broken nose, injury to the sinuses, and the loss of two front teeth during the incident. His client will undergo reconstructive surgery shortly.

Ranked among the top 100 plaintiff’s lawyers in the U.S., Demetrio won a $1 billion settlement for former NFL and NHL players and families in a concussion-related class action lawsuit against the professional sports leagues.

Dao’s daughter, Crystal Dao Pepper, says she was "shocked and horrified" by the incident.

United reiterates its apologies, saying it will never use law enforcement to remove passengers "unless it’s a matter of safety and security." Its internal review continues.

United Master Executive Council, the union representing the airline's 12,500 pilots, releases a statement expressing their anger. The statement also says it had nothing to do with the incident.

April 16
United confirms media reports it has changed its overbooking policy. Now, crew members can’t remove passengers already seated.

April 19
Munoz meets with the Chinese consulate in Chicago "over the possible impact to bookings" as social media users across the U.S., China, and Vietnam call for a boycott of United.

April 21
United Continental Holdings denies Munoz his planned promotion to chairman.

April 22
Two separate surveys by Morning Consult and LendEdu reach similar findings that more than 40% of millennials would either no longer fly on United or avoid giving it their business.

Hit or Miss?
Munoz exacerbated an already fraught situation with a robotic response and barely concealed contempt for his customers.

In a highly competitive price-led industry dominated by a few players, United failed to show empathy with its paying customers and came across as uncaring, insincere, and brutal.

1. The word "re-accommodate" is forever lodged in the Internet lexicon as a United Airlines euphemism for brutally assaulting your customers.

2. Saying sorry shouldn’t be so hard. A good apology only needs to be said once. Then it needs to be followed up with action to demonstrate good intent.

3. Munoz was led too much by legal and internal HR issues that caused him to miss the window of opportunity to make a strong, earnest apology and his response wasn’t consistent with United’s stated mission and values.

It's imperative that your crisis strategies are still able to communicate effectively to the right audiences and help you plan for every potential threat to your brand’s reputation. PRWeek's Crisis Communications brings PR and comms professionals together to explore the stories behind the most talked-about crises of the past year, and give delegates the unique ability to live through front-line experiences. Crisis Comms this June.

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