Wow! Turn on the news, Twitter, Facebook and the United Airlines Story are featured everywhere. United sure taught us a lesson on how to win outrage and lose customers

United decided that four of their staff needed to get onto an overbooked flight. They asked for volunteers to remove themselves, with compensation. No one volunteered and this is where things started getting ‘ugly’.

United decided they would ‘randomly’ select passengers. The first passenger to be selected was a lady and she was reluctant but left. Then a gentleman was selected. He refused, telling the staff that he was a doctor and had to be at the hospital in the morning for his patients.

He was then forcibly removed from the plane, and I mean forcibly. Watch the video footage as it all unfolds.

Courtesy Fox News.

This caused an outrage on the plane amongst the people, but an even bigger outrage on social media.

Long after the incident United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411.


United’s apologies are falling on many deaf ears.

What they should be taking accountability for is:

  1. 1. Treating human beings with the utmost disrespect. This goes for the David Dao that was physically assaulted by being yanked out of his seat (he sustained a broken nose, lost teeth and was knocked unconscious); as well as the onlookers who were helpless to intervene. Children had to witness this appalling behaviour. All this so that United staff did not have to be inconvenienced.
  2. 2. Poor planning and accountability – Ok, I can only imagine the complexities of aviation travel. There is so much that can go wrong that is not the fault of the airline of anyone else. Poor weather conditions, delays from connecting flights, staff shortages etc. I get it.
  3. 3. Poor listening – the ‘chosen’ person was a doctor trying to get to his job in the morning. Yes! Read that again. And yet no one gave him the time of day. Yet if there was an emergency during the flight, he would have been asked to step up. Subsequently, United tried to discredit him after the incident by stating that his medical license was suspended a few years earlier. They had the wrong David Dao, who will now apparently also be suing United.
  4. 4. Lack of flexibility – even thoughDavid stated his case, they would not budge on their decision. I am sure that most people on the plane would have agreed that his job was of top priority. After the incident, an adult and a group of kids left the plane because they were traumatised. Perhaps there should be occupations that are excluded from been selected in the system. Heaven forbid, he was the only doctor on the flight and someone had a heart attack.
  5. 5. Total disregard for a PAYING CUSTOMER – I get that there are rules and regulations and it is in the fine print that a customer can be bumped. The problem here was how this was handled. Why were there no volunteers to start with? In the same week, when Delta got slammed with more than 4,000 flight cancellations (United had not), one family got $11,000 in American Express gift cards, food vouchers, taxi vouchers and hotel vouchers, by giving up their seats THREE DAYS in a row (and ultimately they decided not to travel, and got the biggest bonus of the three days, plus their flights refunded.) All without dragging anyone off a plane. The Delta issue was well known (weather related in Atlanta that messed everything else up.) So now, because Delta went for the maximum each time ($1,350 plus food, hotel and taxi vouchers for the family of 3), they got volunteers.
  6. 6. Getting Federal Aviation Security to remove the client and then shifting the blame. They should be there to keep customers safe. It was clear that the gentleman was not a threat. Now I know you may be saying that United staff did not touch the gentleman in question and that they were calm during the incident.  The reality is that they made the decision to call in Federal Aviation Security and everything that transpired thereafter is on both parties hands.  Not once did any of the United staff stand up and say that what was being done, was inhumane.

So what is the ‘social media’ lesson in all of this?

Many years ago we would have said that there is no such a thing as bad publicity. With the backlash and speed that social media reveals an event, there is nowhere to hide and nothing to sweep under the carpet.

Bad publicity is bad publicity and can damage the shares of your company.

When Mr Taylor had his guitar manhandled by United Airlines 7 years ago and took to Social Media singing ‘United breaks guitars, United saw a plummet in their stock price. I am sure we will see this again with many vowing never to use United again.


The Action people take depends on how deeply they are affected morally and socially.

The severity of an event and the direct correlation to the emotional state of people witnessing the event whether directly or online, has a direct impact on how the message will be dispersed on social media and the action that people will take towards the company. People don’t care whether they have all the facts, they will react.

News travels fast and it travels everywhere.

News travels fast and it lasts longer than you can imagine.

Respond appropriately and with ‘heart’

How you respond to an incident can help you to recover (somewhat) or make the matter even worse. Gone are the days when a well crafted headless public statement will ‘cut it’. CEO’s need to show more compassion.

What you do offline has a direct impact on your online reputation.

Smartphones are everywhere.  Think before you react.