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United Airlines Continues To Deal With PR Disaster After Passenger Incident

Apr 11, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 6:38 pm
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At one point today, United Airlines stock was down nearly 4 percent, a loss of more than $900 million, as investors tried to assess damage from a public relations disaster. Cellphone videos of a middle-aged passenger being dragged off a full flight went viral yesterday, and the airline's initial responses only made things worse. The stock later recovered to close down about 1.2 percent. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: On Monday, the day after the incident, United CEO Oscar Munoz tweeted that the airline is investigating what happened and apologized for, quote, "having to re-accommodate some of its passengers." Re-accommodate - the online response was a resounding no. To most, it looked like violent abuse of a paying customer.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, this is wrong. Oh, my God, look at what you're doing to him.

NOGUCHI: The police dragged the limp man bleeding around the mouth as other passengers responded with horror. The video circulated globally. There were calls for boycotts. After facing fierce criticism for his initial statements, Munoz this afternoon issued a more fulsome mea culpa. Quote, "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way."

United also promised to re-examine its handling of everything from overbooking to volunteer incentives to partnerships with law enforcement. The new response was an improvement, says Deb Gabor, CEO of an Austin brand marketing firm. The company's earlier statement, she says, inflicted more damage by expressing little sympathy for its passengers. Then for about a day, the company went silent.

DEB GABOR: You have to say something, and the things that you should be saying as an organization should be focused on concern for the human beings involved.

NOGUCHI: She noted last month, Munoz was recognized by PRWeek magazine as communicator of the year.

GABOR: The poor communication that did come out yesterday definitely flies in the face of this ironic recognition.

NOGUCHI: Gabor says she has to fly a lot and usually dreads it.

GABOR: In this day and age where the bar is really set very, very low, maybe United is lowering the bar for us even further.

NOGUCHI: Michael Boyd, an aviation expert, says the public is overreacting without knowing what happened. He adds that oversold flights are routine and don't usually result in the removal of passengers.

MICHAEL BOYD: Airlines have always done this because people no-show.

NOGUCHI: But the criticism United faces is for what happened after it decided to displace four passengers on its flight to Louisville. Paul Hudson is president at a grassroots consumer group called flyersrights.org. He says United could have offered more cash, for example, but the airline didn't do that.

PAUL HUDSON: They were in a position where they have very little regulation and very little competition.

NOGUCHI: It's unclear whether the outage will amount to a major business cost for United. As many customer advocates note, there are only four major airlines, and customers will likely still shop for the cheapest flight even if it's on United. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.