United Airlines: “If we cannot beat our competitors, we beat our customers”

For the past week, United Airlines has generated negative publicity regarding its treatment of a customer by forcibly removing him from the plane after the man (Dr. David Dao) has boarded due to “overbooking”. While customers have been booted off from their paid seats before as it is a common occurrence, none has resulted in an incident that has the whole world in shock and anger.

It was reported that the plane was at capacity since the only reason the United wanted to remove four passengers to make room for several of their staff. For a lawyer’s perspective, point one makes it clear that the law permitting the plane to allow passengers to deny boarding in event of oversell isn’t applicable as United  should have deny passengers from boarding beforehand instead of kicking people off the plane after they were seated and that the plane was NOT oversold.

The second point makes it clear that United violated a law since the failed to give priority to people with reserved confirmed seats. Even United employees and other carrier employees could be denied seating if they don’t have confirmed seating.

With the third point, the CEO, Oscar Munoz claimed that the Dao was belligerent and that did gave United the right to remove him from the plane. From the video, it would have been an acceptable reason except for the fact that the police initiated the violence and belligerence.

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To rub salt on the wound, the CEO’s initial apology avoided responsibility and ownership of the problem with words apologizing for “re-accomodating” the passenger even though Dao came out with concussion, a broken nose and lost two front teeth. As a result, United’s reputation plummeted even further. If the CEO apologized about the incident with full ownership of the problem and offer corrective actions, then the uproar would have been mitigated. It wasn’t until the consequences of stock dropping $950 million are dire enough to warrant a serious response from the CEO.

Additionally, a lot of dirt was dug up on Dr. Dao on his past concerning drugs and sex with patients to discredit him and justify their treatment of the man. While his past is less than clean and unsavory, his past is irrelevant to the situation at hand. Even if it was known beforehand about his past on the flight, it should still NOT be acceptable to bash his head and dragged him off like a rag doll. Furthermore, even if the doctor has engaged in some dark actions in the past, it doesn’t mean he is still the same man in the present.

Not only the news caused outrage in the USA, but also the incident made headlines around the world, especially in China. Many social media Chinese users raged upon hearing the news because they perceived racism factoring in the incident. Many claimed that his race was a factor on how he was treated on the plane due to common perceptions of the stereotype that Asians are meek and won’t fight back. While there is no concrete evidence supporting the racism angle, it is a possibility but is a speculative idea due to difficulty in proving subconscious thoughts and bias. Regardless, United will suffer heavy loss of revenues due to relying on Asian routes since many Chinese will boycott the carrier because of this incident.

The whole United fiasco is a lesson on effects of increasingly global world and access of information that can  impact public relations of a company in a significant way. It could be possible that United would be mentioned in future business textbooks.

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