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Unfriendly skies for United Airlines.

It hasn’t even been a month since the infamous #leggingsgate scandal when two young girls where stopped from boarding a plane to Denver because they were wearing inappropriate attire, leggings. Now United Airlines finds itself in another PR disaster and yet again, its response has been pitiful.

A video has gone viral of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat with such brutal force that his blood has been spattered on the armchairs of neighbouring seats. However the PR disaster lies in the ‘apology’ United Airlines made and pinned to its Twitter page.

Similarly to last week’s #pepsiadvert with influencer Kendall Jenner, United Airline’s response illustrates how companies fail to utilise social media to ease crises.

It would be foolish to suggest that United Airlines could attempt to control the situation. The images and video footage of the man being removed are distressing for anyone to see, yet alone to watch.

Their apology on Twitter should have been the first steps in real time as part of their wider crisis management strategy. Secondly, it could have been the opportunity to put right the wrongs in the poorly executed #leggingsgate response.

Instead, United Airlines have shown they have not learnt anything from the previous media scandal and have followed the same poorly thought out strategy.

The airline’s response is defensive to say the least- merely outlining its company policy, supporting the actions of its staff and not apologising for the event in question. They fail to add the human element, offering no sincere apology to the passenger harmed and no link to a solution moving forward.

However weak their response was, United Airlines were right to use Twitter as the medium to apologise on, particularly as that is the portal the footage went viral on. Despite this, the ‘apology’ by-lined to CEO Oscar Munoz pinned on the Twitter page, does anything but strike a chord with its audience and fails to directly apologise to the passenger involved.

Unfortunately due to the scale of how viral the video has gone, the audience has been magnified across the world and will no doubt provide longstanding reputational damage.In the first sentence, Munoz showcases his primary position- standing firmly behind his staff’s wrong doing, ironically one of the main reasons why he was the recipient of the US PR weekly award, ‘communicator of the year.’

Many Twitter users outlined their frustration of the use of the word ‘re-accommodate’ in the statement, as they believe it underplays the brutality, which took place to remove the passenger from the plane.

My concern is that this communicates that the CEO has not received a full grasp on the severity of the actions taken by his staff. Munoz fails to understand how social media, and in particular, Twitter works. Twitter is a global borderless community, accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, reaching parts of the world the airline cannot and therefore, should never be underestimated.

United Airlines Meme

As a result of this, companies and organisations do not have the luxury of time in crisis management. Before responding, United Airlines were put on trial and a verdict was delivered before the statement was issued.

Sentiment on Twitter is focussed on demanding an apology for the brutal force brought on by the actions of United Airlines staff, and the all-important ‘human’ touch.

At the end of the day the buck starts and stops with United Airlines. Passengers come first, always. However this is now a mammoth task after a leaked memo by CEO Munoz suggested that the passenger was at fault for his disruptive behaviour therefore the actions of his staff and the force applied was justified and necessary.

13 hours later and after nearly $1 billion has been wiped off its holding company value, CEO Munoz has issued a second apology and it is pinned to its Twitter page. He has shown awareness by recognising the global outrage and the excessive use of force but most importantly, he has apologised to Dr. Dao.

However it will take more than a second apology to overcome the damage done to the airlines reputation. Many will see this an attempt to calm angry shareholders and the outpouring of anger towards to the airline that now has entered wider conversations of racial profiling.

United Airlines needs to show that it cares. The second apology should be the first step of many in a wider crisis management strategy and most importantly, a change of company culture, review of sexist policies and staff training of how to handle situations of overbooking.

United Airlines must to take any opportunities, including this one, to rebuild its image as an airline that puts the customer first.


Other airlines such as Emirates Airlines and Royal Jordanian have used this opportunity to ‘clap back’ through Twitter to reaffirm its commitment to customer service. In particular, Emirates Airlines, has used this as an opportunity to respond to CEO Munoz comment ‘Those (Gulf) Airlines aren’t airlines’ through the tag line ‘Fly the friendlier skies…this time for real.’

If United Airlines fail to capitalise on such opportunities and take the necessary steps to further the company’s mission, the skies will not be friendlier when passengers choose not to fly with United Airlines.

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