CEO Oscar Munoz, despite making a belated public apology Tuesday, should buckle up for more turbulence, including possible political, regulatory and business fallout.
What this tumult ultimately means for Munoz will depend on how well he manages through the rest of this crisis. So far, his response has been slow, wanting and a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis.
As most of us know, United’s troubles began Sunday when a passenger was forcefully dragged from his seat on an overbooked United Express plane. A 30-second video, shot by a fellow traveler, showed a beaten and bloodied paying customer being pulled from the airplane. It went viral and is being viewed all over the world.
As much as United’s embattled CEO pines for this growing mess to fade away, that’s not happening. In response, angry consumer advocates, lawmakers, and everyday flyers are relentlessly blaming the airline, and Munoz. Even China is ticked off, which makes this an international problem because United has invested heavily in that country.
Keep in mind this is the second recent public relations firestorm to occur on Munoz’s watch. A few weeks ago, United was hammered on social media for not allowing two teens to wear leggings on board, a violation of a dress code for employees and guests traveling on the airline.
“This is two strikes against Munoz,” says Paul Hudson, president of Flyersrights.org, a Florida-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group of 60,000 members. “I don’t know if he could survive a third.”
That remains to be seen.
For now, however, criticism of United continues unabated and is crossing that Rubicon from the world of business to pop culture.
Take, for example, Kimmel’s ABC-TV late night show, which ran a fake, but nicely crafted United Airlines “commercial” that includes this memorable line: “Give us a problem and we’ll drag your (expletive) off the plane.”
Since the passenger beating/removal video went viral, Twitter and other social media sites have been rife with fired up and relentless jabs at the air carrier.
The tweets are mostly chiding United for its decision to forcefully remove a customer, who adamantly refused to deplane when told by staff to get going. There are various Twitter attempts to ignite boycotts of United along with innumerable vows to never use the airline again.
This outrage is fueling other types of action.
Tuesday, Flyersrights sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao calling for a summit meeting with airline CEOs, passenger representatives and unions to discuss the impact of the United controversy on regulations for overbooking flights and other related consumer issues.
In its call to arms, the group hopes to enlist the support of President Donald Trump (who viewed the video of the passenger’s removal, says a White House spokesman) despite the administration’s abhorrence of drafting any new industry regulations.
“No one believes that continuing to give airlines carte blanche to abuse and assault passengers will make air travel great again,” states the Flyersrights letter to Chao.
Lawmakers are piling on too.
U.S. Senate Democrats, including Illinois’ Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, sent a letter to Munoz on Tuesday asking a series of questions about why the passenger removal happened and demanding recommendations for how trouble can be avoided in the future. In separate statements, U.S. Reps. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, criticized United, adding they also want to know how the airline intends to change its ways.
“This is far from the end of the story,” Schakowsky said.
The United controversy could prompt efforts to attach stronger consumer protections as part of Congress’ upcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration — something that will aggravate the entire U.S. airline business.
Then there is China.
It’s a country in which United is making a significant investment, and where it operates more nonstop U.S. to China routes than any other domestic carrier.
Video of the violent incident posted on China’s Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo had been viewed more than 210 million times by late Tuesday. Many users responded with outrage over perceived bias against an Asian-looking passenger and some called for a boycott of the U.S.-based airline, according to The Associated Press.
With all this going on, it’s not surprising that CEO Munoz took another run at making an apology.
Having flubbed an initial try, where he came across more as blaming the passenger than the staff and O’Hare International Airport police, Munoz’s statement begins with: “I’m sorry. We will fix this.”
Maybe not the most artful prose to start such an important message, but it gets to the point.
Munoz goes on to “deeply” apologize to the roughed-up customer and everyone else on the plane with him. He vowed a review of United’s policies, like how it works with airport cops, and said he’d get back to us by April 30.
Munoz also went on to say: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
That’s a statement most of us can agree with.
But in light of this explosive controversy, I’m not so sure his time isn’t running out.