How United Got Its Nightmare

by Emily Shire
Rick Kern/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Even with Sean Spicer's disastrous Tuesday press conference, which devolved into an unfortunate comparison between Adolph Hitler and Bashar al-Assad and involved the phrase "the Holocaust center," United Airlines is still in the running for the most embarrassingly bad news story. Remarkably, video of United Airlines violently removing a boarded customer going viral was only the start of the company's problems. Thanks to a, shall we say, poorly received initial response from the company's CEO, United Airlines has a mess that just doesn't seem to disappear.

The incident may cost United Airlines a pretty penny. While the long-term financial implications aren't clear yet, so far, United's stock prices tumbled and suffered market-cap losses of around $600 million, according to Yahoo! Finance.

How did United Airlines end up with a story that induces so much outrage and face-palming that it all but buries the uproar over Pepsi's completely tone-deaf protest commercial? The answer is actually not as simple as botching the damage control or even dragging a boarded passenger off a flight. (Okay, at one point, it was maybe as simple as not dragging a boarded passenger off of a flight.)

When United Airlines employees told Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor based in Kentucky, that he needed to get off his Sunday flight from Chicago to Louisville, the company wasn't actually doing anything so unusual. Aviation industry experts tell Bustle that "invols" — involuntarily bumping people from flights — are frustrating but by no means atypical.

"Airlines overbook seats to remain financially sound. The good ones have sophisticated programs to determine how many seats to sell in order to maximize seat utilization and revenue while not inconveniencing passengers or harming their reputation in the public. But they try to avoid operating airlines with empty seats," Roy Godberg, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who has been practicing aviation law for more than two decades, tells Bustle in an email.

When offered voucher to voluntarily be bumped, customers sometimes readily oblige, explains Seth Kaplan, a managing partner of Airline Weekly. "When I was young and single, I would volunteer before they asked. I traveled around the world for free on vouchers I got for traveling two hours later," Kaplan says. "There are a lot of people who want to be bumped."

They're just not necessarily on every flight.

One of United Airlines big mistakes was letting Dao and others board when the company was ultimately going need to involuntarily remove them. "The bad thing was, they boarded this guy. They shouldn't have let him onto the plane," Kaplan says. "To let a guy board and tell him he needed to get out of a seat they gave him a boarding pass for, that's different."

Of course, we know how well boarding a passenger and then telling him he had no choice but to leave worked out for United Airlines.

But then the problem was magnified by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. "The CEO should have right away expressed outrage at what had happened and said 'That's not how we treat our customer,'" Kaplan says. That's not what happened. Instead, Munoz released a statement on Monday saying:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

Not only did the statement seem pretty emotionally detached, but it also didn't sound like an actual apology for the way Dao was treated. Then things got worse for Munoz when an email to United Airlines employees appeared to blame Dao, calling him "disruptive and belligerent."

"It's fine to explain some of the elements of how it happened, how flights are oversold for a reason, that they were trying to get these crew members on to get them to another flight so that instead of inconveniencing one person on this flight, you'd inconvenience hundred," Kaplan says. "I just wish they would have seen what everyone else was seeing, a customer who was just not treated how everyone should be treated."

On Tuesday, Munoz appeared to get closer at offering the right response. He released a statement calling what happened a "truly horrific event" and saying "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way." He also said the company will review how its crew policies and publicize its result by April 20.

That's a start. However, as Kaplan says, "it doesn't count as much now, after everyone else has told them what to do."