How United Airlines tackled an immigration crisis

Comms leader Josh Earnest recounts how the carrier tamped down one of its latest challenges.

Josh Earnest at PRDecoded
Josh Earnest at PRDecoded

CHICAGO: Crisis loves company. Just ask Josh Earnest, SVP and chief communications officer of United Airlines.

In 2017, the airline faced public excoriation for its handling of the David Dao incident. About a year later, Earnest joined the company. Asked by CEO Oscar Munoz why he wanted the job, Earnest quipped, "Because I think I can help. I hope he took it the right way."

That same year, United Airlines found itself in the public’s crosshairs yet again, this time after the Trump administration began enforcing the immigration policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Customers called United Airlines, complaining that they saw what they believed to be immigration officers using United airplanes to transport migrant children and accusing the company of being complicit in the policy, Earnest said.

In response, United Airlines met with federal officials to explain that the company did not want its fleet to be used to transport separated children, Earnest said. Buying the airline some time, immigration officials were again spotted on United flights, leading the public to believe the government was lying.

This caused United Airlines to collaborate with the nonprofit immigration group FWD.US by donating flights to reunite families. Delta soon followed suit, which "some people in my office believe was the strongest endorsement of our strategy," Earnest said.

The debate over whether United Airlines should even take that step came down to a simple question: does the company hunker down until the storm passes? Or does it try to be proactive?

"Not acting," Earnest concluded, "is not always the least risky step."

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