How to Not Handle a PR Crisis: United Airlines Edition


If you work in public relations or marketing, you’ve probably seen this model before. It’s the four phases of the conflict management life cycle, and numerous techniques that public relations people use to deal with conflict.

Unfortunately, United Airlines PR staff must have opted to ignore this model and try to deal with things their own way. Spoiler alert , it went horribly.

In April of this year, thanks to multiple videos taken from personal cell phones aboard United Airlines Flight 3411, millions were able to witness a passenger being dragged off a plane because they refused to give up their seat for a United Airlines employee. The passenger was eventually identified as Dr. David Dao, 69, of Kentucky, who sustained a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth during the episode.

Airlines reserve the right to remove passengers for any reason, even for the transferring of employees. It is state when purchasing a plane ticket. But how many of us always read the fine print? And is it right to forcibly remove a passenger simply because they refuse to give up their seat? Most importantly, no one should sustain injuries like Dr. Dao did that day.

So while crisis are inevitably going to happen, what and how should companies respond? And what did United do and not do that caused such an up-roar? Especially when the companies CEO, Oscar Munoz, was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by PRWeek in March, 2017, one month prior to the incident.

Let’s start before the situation ever happened–the proactive phase. How come United waited until all passengers had boarded the plan before offering vouchers to have four passengers bump their flight? Instead of allowing them to board, they should have asked the passengers in the lobby before anyone had ever boarded the plane. United only offered up to $800 for vouchers. For comparison, Delta airlines offers up to $10000 and Spirit has released a statement that they will never overbook.

This could have easily been avoidable if United had a better plan in place for these types of instances. They knew they were overbooked and would have to transport their employees as to not disrupt other flights, this could have been taken care of early on.

After no passenger offered to give up their seat, United was forced to randomly select four passengers. Once the situation began to elevate, United was forced to call in aviation police. Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out well–see the video linked above. No one could have predicted this, and hopefully this situation never happens again.

Now if you weren’t mad enough after watching that video–like millions of others–get prepared. The following statement was released the day after the event. 


There is no apology to the passenger for his injuries, only an apology for having to “re-accommadate these passengers” No matter what, a company should always apologize if one of their customers is hurt. Does not matter if it was at fault of another person, or another group of people, it happened on a United Airlines plane.

There are conflict resolution techniques to bring a heated conflict to a favorable resolution. This response only added fuel to the fire. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the CEO apologized that Dr. Dao sustained injuries and was removed the way he was.

Never underestimate social media. Before social media, this story would have never gained the global attention that it did. This is a perfect example of how a crisis can escalate to a global PR nightmare over night.

This situation has caused other countries to pass laws; Canada released a passenger bill of rights in May refusing airlines the right to bump passengers from a flight against their will. Transportation Minister, Marc Garneau, introduced the bill just a month after the United Airlines incident.

The war is never over when you think it is. Yes, United eventually apologized and took full responsibility, but the repercussions from this event is going to effect the company for a long time. Image restoration and reputation must be re-established.

Since the incident, United and Dr. Dao have reached an undisclosed amount settlement. The company has also put into place a new bidding program, allowing passengers on overbooked flights to place a bid on what they would like to be compensated for if they gave up their seat. The airline also upped the cap on reimbursement to $10000.

I’m sure the company isn’t done making changes to their infrastructure either. The recovery phase is a long one, and takes a lot of work to regain a companies reputation. This can work, as long as a company is willing to change. So far, it seems as if United is willing to change for their image. If only they had responded more swiftly and more empathetic in the first place, this PR disaster wouldn’t be as bad as it is.



Crisis management case study: United Airlines. (2017, April 28). Retrieved October 03, 2017, from

Mccann, E. (2017, April 14). United’s Apologies: A Timeline. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from

Passenger dragged off United Airlines plane wins settlement. (2017, April 27). Retrieved October 04, 2017, from

Rabson, M. (2017, May 16). Passenger rights bill stops airlines from bumping passengers without consent. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz named PRWeek U.S. Communicator of the Year. (2017, March 09). Retrieved from

United launches overbooked flights bidding program after passenger dragging incident. (2017, September 25). Retrieved October 04, 2017, from