April was a bad month for airlines. Customer videos of three ugly incidents went viral on social media. Millions watched appalled as the reality of customer service at three major airlines mocked their marketing.
The first video showed a United Airlines passenger getting dragged from his seat and along the floor by security guards. United had overbooked and needed seats to transport crew to another plane. They chose him, he refused and lost two teeth, had his nose broken and required hospital treatment.
In three days, United Airlines was mentioned more than 2.5 million times on social media. Sentiment swung from 91% positive to 68.9% negative. The Flight3411 hashtag accrued 547 million impressions. United’s ‘FlyFriendlySkies’ strapline got 148 million impressions.
Two days after the incident CEO Oscar Munoz said: ‘This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.’ Emailing staff, he blamed the passenger for being ‘disruptive and belligerent’ and praised them for ‘following established procedures’. The email was leaked and Munoz appeared on ABC TV’s flagship show, Good Morning America, to express his ‘shame’ and promise ‘to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.’
The PR disaster triggered a $1bn drop in value, and United cancelled his appointment to chairman, which was scheduled for 2018.
Then American Airlines announced they’d suspended an employee for allegedly hitting a mother with a pushchair. A video shows a heated argument involving crew, passengers and a crying woman holding a baby. A passenger said a flight attendant snatched a pushchair from the mother, hitting her and narrowly missing the baby. Another passenger confronted a crew member, saying ‘You do that to me and I’ll knock you flat’. American Airlines said ‘we are deeply sorry… the actions of our team member do not appear to reflect patience or sympathy, two values necessary for customer care.’ The apology came the day a US Senate committee held a hearing on the industry’s customer service failures.
Then Delta Airlines apologised after a couple with two toddlers were kicked off an overbooked flight. The eight minute YouTube video, which got two million views, shows the passenger arguing with a police officer and Delta crew member. The ticket he’d bought for his teenage son was being used instead for his toddler son in a safety seat. Delta told him it was a federal offense, and ‘you and your wife will be in jail, and your kids will be in foster care’. The toddler couldn’t use his son’s seat and crew claimed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations banned child safety seats, and the child would have to sit in his lap. But Delta’s published advice is to use one, and the FAA’s website ‘strongly urges’ parents to put young children in a safety device in their own seat.
Crises happen, so what can you do to prevent Friday’s PR crisis turning into Monday’s business disaster?
1. Shrink the gap between your marketing talk and your service walk.
2. Train your team to deliver your promise, and the experience customers want.
3. Insure for a rainy day. The best insurance against PR disasters is an experienced PR crisis team you can call to advise and help you defuse crises before they gain traction.