Unless you’ve been camping in the desert or just can’t face listening to the news lately, you’ve no doubt heard the story about the greatest PR disaster to befall an airline since, well, maybe ever.
And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer airline: United, or — as I fondly call them — Untied Airlines.
To briefly recap: On a recent flight scheduled from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, Kentucky, United Airlines’ employees called in airport police to forcibly eject a 69-year-old baby boomer named David Dao, a physician who lives in Kentucky.
His crime? He refused to give up his seat and deplane when United decided that he and three other passengers picked “at random” had to leave to make room for an airline crew that needed to get to Louisville.
The punishment? The police officers literally dragged him off the plane by his arms, and, in the process (according to his lawyer), he sustained a concussion, a broken nose, and lost two front teeth.
We Knew Flying Was Bad These Days, But…
A Vietnamese-American who escaped with his life from war-torn Vietnam in 1975, Dao was quoted as saying this latest experience was worse.
Keep in mind that Dao was sitting in his seat with a fully booked and paid-for ticket. And he needed to get home to treat his patients the following morning.
United Airlines’ vaunted PR machine quickly sprung into action, with CEO Oscar Munoz — recently honored by a trade publication as “Communicator of the Year” — announcing that airline personnel had “followed protocols,” and besides, Dao was being “belligerent.”
This story fell apart when videos taken by fellow passengers showed that Dao wasn’t physically fighting back or being nasty — he just didn’t want to arbitrarily be tossed off the plane.
While some details remain murky, The Communicator of the Year has been trying to make nice by apologizing to Dao for the incident, promising that such a thing will never happen again, and even offering Dao’s fellow passengers compensation — with, among other “incentives,” vouchers for future United flights or frequent flyer miles. And, oh yeah, some cash if they really want that.
(Hint to passengers: take the cash, because after the lawsuits are settled and the horrified public stays way, United may not have much left.)
United Has a History
United has long had a history of bad consumer relations, which pretty much matches their low level of passenger relations during their flights.
Surly flight attendants, bad food (when they used to give you food), broken-down equipment…these are givens (and apply to many airlines).
But United approaches its bad customer relations with a certain relish — as though they enjoy it.
And yes, I do have a personal grudge story to relate — which explains why I’ve long avoided the Unfriendly Skies whenever I can (though this is not always possible).
Ladies and Gentlemen, I Regret to Inform You…,
Back when my two kids were much younger, the three of us were on a United flight from the East Coast back to San Francisco, where we lived at the time. About halfway through the flight, just as I was nearing the end of watching the movie “Hoosiers,” the captain came on the PA system to announce gravely that we had lost an engine and would have to make an emergency landing in Omaha.
For what seemed like an excruciatingly long time but was probably about 30 to 45 minutes, we practiced putting our heads between our legs and other potential life-saving maneuvers — or maybe they were just something to keep us occupied so we wouldn’t go into screaming fits.
As we approached the airport in Omaha, we could see all kinds of flashing lights and emergency vehicles, ready to rescue us if all didn’t go well.
Fortunately, it did go well, with all credit to the pilot. A s we deplaned, shaken but grateful to have survived, we were bused off to an airport hotel to make calls (these were pre-cellphone days) and maybe get a couple of hours’ rest before getting on another plane.
Meanwhile, Back in San Francisco
My wife, Catharine (and, not incidentally, the mother to our children, who were calmer than I was through the whole ordeal) had gone to the airport to pick us up.
When she arrived and looked at the flight arrivals board, she saw the dreaded words “See Agent” instead of an ETA.
When she “saw agent,” he would give her no information whatsoever — instead, advising her to go home and await a call from the airline. No words of encouragement, or even understanding. Just “go home.”
Not knowing what else to do, she drove home in a stupor, convinced we had crashed.
As it happens, almost the moment she walked in the door of our apartment, the phone rang. It was me, calling from the airport hotel.
She never did receive a call from United.
Update on April 27, 2017:
According to a recent survey of nearly 2,000 American adults by Morning Consult, when given a choice between flying American Airlines or United, more than one-third of respondents chose American even if that flight included a layover and was more expensive than a non-stop United flight. And when cost and duration were equal, nearly 80 percent chose the American flight over United if they had heard about the incident involving Dr. Dao. (Those who hadn’t heard about it were almost evenly split.) Evidence that customer relations do make a difference!
And if you’re planning to fly your pet from one location to another...the news just came out that one-third of all pet deaths on U.S. airlines last year occurred on one airline: United. So you might want to check with Fluffy or Bowser before choosing your flight.
Note to Readers:
This is my first blog post in a month because I’ve been on deadline for a travel guide to Tucson called “100 Things to Do in Tucson Before You Die,” to be published this fall by Reedy Press of St. Louis. I’ve now met my deadline and am back among the living, proving you can indeed do 100 Things in Tucson before your demise. (Knock on wood.) Hope to see at least some of you at a book-signing event later this year!
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