United we stand, divided we fall: how the reputation of United Airlines continues to nose dive

by Susie Dullard

16th March 2018

*Bing bong* This is your captain speaking. Please fasten your seatbelts, the following makes for uncomfortable reading. Oh, and would the lady crying hysterically at the back of the aircraft, please try to keep it down?

I’m sure the woman in question, mother-of-two Catalina Robledo, would have been only too pleased to oblige. Problem was, she’d just discovered the body of her beloved and ill-fated French bulldog, Kokito, who four-and-a-half-hours earlier, she’d been forced to watch being stuffed in to an overhead compartment during United Airlines Flight 1284 from Houston to New York on Monday.

Despite Robledo’s pleads and protests, echoed in chorus by the surrounding passengers on the flight, the dog carrier Kokito was travelling in was ‘blocking the aisle’, the result of which saw it relegated to an overhead bin. Bin potentially being the operative word, given the outcome.

The repeated yelping and cries for reassurance from her trusted guardian; in short, her mother, went ignored by the flight crew as Robledo remained unable to stand, new-born baby on her lap and with limited opportunity to navigate the aircraft as it encountered turbulence before arriving in LaGuardia Airport.

Eyewitness reports and countless videos of the poor family in the immediate aftermath of their grim discovery began circulating, prompting global media attention. Twitter soon went berserk with public calls to boycott United Airlines.

That’s the thing about social media. There’s nowhere to hide for brands in their attempts to silence a scandal. It’s the fuel to a fire already being fed the other two important ingredients of combustion: heat (usually being felt under the collar of the senior management), and oxygen (seemingly not in abundance in the overhead compartments of aircraft).

It’s at this point I’ll clarify that this brutal account is not my personal assessment. It is derived from the extensive commentary generated since this story emerged; and it’s no surprise why.

The image of Kokito’s lifeless body certainly made for uncomfortable viewing, and likely gave little comfort to the owners of the 18 animals which have died in United’s care in the last year alone–in  addition to the 13 injured in transport, according to numbers from the Department of Transportation.

United has since apologised and taken full responsibility for the “tragic accident that should never have occurred”, admitting that pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. It has also refunded Robledo’s tickets as well as the typical $200 charged for carrying a pet, and offered to pay for a necropsy.

On face value, some may applaud this response from the airline, particularly following the backlash it received when video emerged of a bloodied and bruised doctor being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight—a controversy that sent similar shockwaves across the globe.

After all, the company has apologised (tick), issued a statement (tick), compensated the family with the costs of their travel and expenses (tick) and pledged to ensure this never happens again (tick).

But even if consumers can have short memories, is it ok to suggest that simply throwing money at this with the expectation it’ll all go away is good? Plane wrong.

United is missing the bigger picture; that failing to deliver on a brand promise and getting it so wrong can have an irreversible impact on reputation. Take KFC, for example, the fast food chain who found itself in a flap recently when it ran out of chicken due to supplier issues. Whilst ultimately celebrated for the light-hearted tongue-in-cheek advert it responded to the crisis with, it will long be referred to as an example of a business which, at least temporarily, had its priorities in the wrong pecking order.

Since its apology, United has gone a step further, announcing it will issue special bag tags for animal carriers which notify staff that a customer is travelling with an in-cabin pet.

But the fallout for the airline continues. Prosecutors have since launched an investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted off the back of the incident, and United States senators have introduced a bill, appropriately called WOOFF (Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act), to prohibit carriers from storing animals in overhead compartments.

All of this for a brand whose motto for many years was Come fly the friendly skies.

In what is an increasingly competitive aviation industry, understanding any loss of reputational brand trust may not be immediately obvious for United Airlines, but surely the succession of damaging incidents it continues to endure proves there are still lessons to be learned.

Fresh towel? Perhaps the question is more a fresh approach to customer service if United is to successfully wing it through the foreseeable future without another PR headache.