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Digital River - Talk to the Experts

United Airlines Gives Appalling New Meaning to Customer Service

By Richard Adhikari
Apr 11, 2017 2:09 PM PT

United Airlines' self-made firestorm spread on Tuesday, as a video showing a passenger being forcibly dragged off a plane continued to make the rounds on social media. The passenger had refused to comply after being told he'd been bumped off the Sunday flight.

The incident sparked international outrage, including calls for a boycott of the airline and for CEO Oscar Munoz to step down. Anger has been particularly intense in China. United's share price has fallen in response to the debacle, taking more than US$700 million off the company's books.

Many consumers have said they won't use the airline, including Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"If I have a choice, I'll fly another carrier -- and I'm Platinum on United," he told CRM Buyer.

David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor, was bleeding from the face when he was dragged feet first down the aisle of the plane.

"To do that in the way they did it was too much," remarked Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"I've never been big on boycotts," he told CRM Buyer, "but after seeing the video, I think consumers should boycott the airline."

United's Way or the Highway

United initially claimed it had to bump four people from Flight 3411 because the plane was overbooked. In actuality, United had decided to bump four paying passengers from the flight to make room for crew members heading to another airport to crew a different flight.

The airline had offered money to anyone who would give up a seat, but when there were no takers, four passengers were selected at random.

Three of them complied, but Dao refused to leave the plane, because he said he had to return to see patients.

The video shows three security officers setting upon Dao and forcibly removing him, as other passengers protested.

The crew members then boarded and were booed by the remaining passengers.

Dao managed to re-enter the plane, yelling frantically that he had to go home, with his face still bloody.

A group of high school students left the plane at that point, with their escort reportedly saying they had seen enough. All of the passengers then were cleared from the plane, and Dao eventually was removed a second time -- on a stretcher.

Reasonable Alternatives

United could have made alternative arrangements with another airline to get the crew members to their destination, McGregor said. "This was wrong."

United "was trading off customer safety for employee logistics," said Enderle. This "is unacceptable to any flier."

The airline should have had its employees fly on another carrier or take alternative transport, he said, because "throwing customers off a plane to save on employee transport charges is very difficult to defend."

Pouring Gasoline on the Flames

United CEO Munoz made things worse. After a backlash on social media, he apologized for having to "re-accommodate" the other passengers and said the company was reaching out to Dao.

In a Monday evening email to employees, Munoz claimed the crew had followed established procedures when removing Dao and described him as "disruptive and belligerent," according to CNBC.

That triggered another storm on Tuesday, with United shares taking a steep drop.

Munoz's statement "was tone deaf," Enderle observed. "He blamed the customer for a horrid employee logistics decision."

He should have "promised this would never happen again and personally apologized to Dao," Enderle suggested. There were claims Dao was singled out because of his race, and United "should have made a particular effort to address this claim."

United's behavior was "cavalier and callous," said Laura DiDio, research director for IoT at 451 Research.

"The deck is stacked against passengers these days," she told CRM Buyer.

However, this situation "is a PR nightmare for United Airlines," DiDio added, "and it's not going away."

No, Really - We're So Sorry

The company appeared to have second thoughts about its response in light of the furor.

Munoz on Tuesday issued a more contrite statement, saying, "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way."

The airline was taking full responsibility for "the truly horrific event," he said.

"It's never too late to do the right thing," Munoz added, promising the results of a full review by the end of April.

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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