The very public shaming of United Airlines

The disgraceful treatment of an Asian-American passenger is there for the world to see thanks to social media, and is the worst possible outcome for the company

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 4:46am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 4:46am

American air passengers are used to serious delays and poor service. But the video of an Asian-American, bloodied while being forcibly dragged off a United Airlines domestic flight by police, has caused shock and outrage. The company’s apology will not repair the public relations disaster; the power of social media is such that hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of them in China, have been appalled by the images. It is reason for firms to think twice about the service they provide and to enact policies intelligently.

Profit margins are slim for US carriers and every vacant seat is seen as lost money. A common operating method is to overbook and then coax passengers onto other flights with compensation. The circumstances for the trip from Chicago to Louisville in Kentucky were slightly different, with four crew suddenly needing seats for unexplained reasons, but the method used was the same. Four passengers were told to disembark and the man, a doctor, was the only one to refuse and police were called in.

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The uploaded videos show in anger-provoking detail what followed. People in China swooped on the images of the man and labelled the incident racial profiling. United says it randomly chooses which passengers will be asked to give up their seats and the terms they agree to when buying tickets gives the airline the right to refuse to fly them at its discretion.

United said that seats on a particular flight are not guaranteed and any action by a passenger deemed to be interfering with the flight crew is against the law.

That does not excuse the disgraceful and unacceptable treatment of the man by police, and the videos have become the worst possible advertisement for United. The incident also raises questions about the airline’s booking practices. Making final seating arrangements before passengers have boarded would be more sensible.

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The prevalence of smartphones means companies cannot afford to make mistakes. Too late, the airline has learned a lesson about how influential social media is, and it has lost a good measure of those most valuable assets for any company, reputation and trust.