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Police drag a man from a United Airlines plane

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An ugly incident provokes a social-media storm

UNITED AIRLINES urges travellers to “Fly the Friendly Skies”. The company makes no promises about its customer service before take-off. When, on April 9th, a traveller in Chicago refused to give up his seat on an overcrowded flight to Louisville, Kentucky, police yanked him into the aisle and dragged him by his hands along the floor, bleeding after he cut his head on an armrest. Horrified fellow passengers took videos on their phones and posted them to social media.

The company’s initial response was possibly the worst bit of crisis-PR in history, noted one media commentator. As videos of the bloodied man quickly went viral, Oscar Munoz, the carrier’s boss, woodenly apologised for having to “re-accommodate” customers. In an internal letter to staff, Mr Munoz said crew had “no choice” in their action and blamed the flyer for not co-operating.

Overbooking, which is common at many carriers, was not the problem. Rather, it was late-arriving, off-duty airline employees who needed seats at the last moment. The usual way of persuading paying passengers not to fly—offering lots of cash—did not work. Such bargains are best struck before boarding the plane. United, however, let passengers take their seats as it offered up to $1,000 to catch a later flight. When not enough travellers were tempted, rather than raising the price further, the crew selected four travellers for disembarkation. The man in question, a doctor aged 69 called David Dao, said he had patients to see the next day and refused to go.

As the scene looped on the world’s news channels and Twitter feeds (one user, @Reflog_18, suggested the cabin layout for United below), Mr Munoz was derided for his apparent antipathy towards passengers. Before the man’s identity was known, his airline became the top-trending topic on Weibo, a Chinese microblog, as rumours swirled (erroneously) that the passenger had been singled out because he was Chinese. Amid calls for a boycott, United’s share price fell by nearly 4% on April 11th before recovering. That day Mr Munoz issued a fresh apology that was different in tone, saying of the forcibly removed customer that “no one should ever be mistreated this way”. He promised a review of company practices, including its partnerships with law enforcement.

Investors are watching to see how quickly the social-media frenzy will subside. Many praise the way that Mr Munoz has run the company since his appointment in 2015. He has focused on costs and delivered pre-tax profit of $3.8bn in 2016, down by 9.5% on the previous year though ahead of analysts’ expectations. But Mr Munoz had promised to tackle the airline’s reputation for bad customer service. Here, he has hardly been a success. United has fallen to 68th place in the influential SKYTRAX airline ranking, one place ahead of Copa Airlines, Panama’s flag carrier.

And scandal seems to follow the firm. In March it was accused of sexism for barring three girls wearing leggings from a flight: a ten-year-old had to put on a dress and the other two teenagers were left at the gate. They had not complied with dress codes for friends and family of employees. Such incidents highlight the gap between the stories firms tell about themselves and what consumers see. Not long before United put Mr Munoz’s initial statement about the bloodied passenger on Facebook, it had posted a picture of a company dog nuzzling a boy, part of a programme to make travel less stressful. Travellers will be telling a story about United for some time. It won’t be the one about the puppies.

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