MIAMI – Over the weekend, United Airlines suffered its second PR loss, in as many weeks as the experience of a passenger that was removed involuntarily from a United Express flight, and appeared to suffer physical harm at the hands of security officers went viral on social media.

Just two weeks after a similar PR challenge arose after United invoked the dress code on two female minors wearing leggings and traveling as non-revenue passengers, this latest issue will exacerbate the harm caused to United in the public eye.

Before diving into the dynamics of this case, it’s worth recapping the facts (according to an internal message from Oscar Munoz to United employees as well as):

  • On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crew members that were told they needed to board the flight.

  • We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.

  • He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.

  • Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.

  • Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials

Two key pieces of information are missing from that summary. The first is that the passenger was bumped not for other paying passengers but rather for four deadheading United employees. The second is that the passenger claimed that he was a physician who needed to see patients the next morning.

United was within its rights to remove the passenger from the plane

So the starting point here is that United was well within the rights of its contract of carriage, which you can read here via Brian Sumers on Twitter:

The standard policy, in cases of overbooking, according to multiple accounts from United is to offer compensation for volunteers, increase that compensation upwards, and if no volunteer is found, then move on to involuntary denied boarding.

In this case United went up to at least $800 or $1,000 offered compensation and got no takers (which is actually pretty shocking at those levels), then went through and chose passengers to pull off the plane based on its own policies (online commentary suggests that the policy is based on the lowest paying passengers).

United then proceeded to remove one couple that got off the plane before moving on to this doctor and his wife. When the doctor refused (conflicting reports suggest that he alternatively “threw a tantrum” and that he politely refused to get off the plane) repeatedly, he was then removed from the plane by security.

Obviously, the video looks bad and in the broader context of convulsions about supposed police brutality and overreach of law enforcement, it was always going to catch the zeitgeist, but United and its employees adhered to the letter of the law, and the actual physical roughness wasn’t even the result of United employees but rather Chicago aviation security employees (including one employee that was placed on leave).

According to this, United’s employees did nothing wrong according to the letter of the law, and the passenger was in the wrong. He should have gotten off the plane when asked and his intransigence in a tough situation escalated this into a situation that is probably unfair to the employees that had to deal with this mess.

United still messed up

But at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. United’s response to this has been uniquely bad, and its policies hamstrung its employees to create a PR mess that may end up rivaling United Breaks Guitars in its long-term impact.

First and foremost United has now twice (once on Twitter and once via a message from CEO Oscar Munoz to United’s employees) solely apologized for the involuntary boarding and not for the experience of the passenger.

I get that United wants to ensure that it doesn’t get itself into trouble in any potential legal situation, but there’s a wide gap between avoiding any tricky legal situations and coming off as tone-deaf and impersonal (which United has managed to do in two consecutive crisis communications situations).

Some of this is due to the inadequacy of Twitter as a customer service platform – the 140 character limit leaves hardly any room for United to add context or display empathy to the passenger in question.

I almost wonder if United should either (1) type up longer responses to questions and post them as pictures or (2) move all passengers to DMs all the time where it can provide a more drawn out response without getting lost in the Twitter feed.

Twitter as a platform has many positive and beneficial aspects. Serving as an effective customer service platform for companies and brands isn’t one of them.

Beyond the immediacy of the response, United had to know soon that the image of the elderly physician bleeding from the lip and being dragged from the plane would be an indelible one, and that the scenario (particularly when the caring for patients excuse was reported) would emotionally favor the passenger.

You can’t necessarily fault the employees for how they handled the situation (though in an ideal world they would have acted with more discretion and/or gone up to the actual limit of $1,200 in compensation or even exceeded it), but everything that happened after the incident occurred is a textbook case of inadequate and canned PR response not being good enough in a world of hyper-personalized social media.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that United absolutely can and should increase its allowable compensation for IDB.

It’s impossible to believe that if United had kept going up in IDB compensation to say $2,000 or $3,000, it wouldn’t have found one or multiple folks willing to stay overnight in Chicago. In the absolute worst case, it costs United something like $10,000 – $12,000 (as with the Delta family over the weekend), and this incident will cost United much, much more in bad press.

In both, this and the leggings case, United upheld its end of the contract and acted within the rules, but it will suffer a massive PR and customer perception hit anyway – life isn’t fair that way sometimes.

The sad part is that United has made a ton of progress in improving its operation and product, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that this pair of incidents will undo large swaths of that.

Ultimately, most readers aren’t going to take the time to understand the context of non-rev dress codes or the actual rules governing IDB situations. Instead, all they will remember is a vague tie between United Airlines and the indelible image of an elderly man bleeding from the lip.