More On United’s “Ethics Plane Wreck”

Ethics Alarms reader Arthur in Maine correctly declared that yesterdays’ multi-stage fiasco involving United Air Lines, an abused passenger and the police would be the first Ethics Alarms “ethics plane wreck.” He was correct.

Now we learn that the entire mess was based on a lie: this was no boating accid….sorry…the flight was not “overbooked.” United just decided at the last minute to fly a flight crew to Louisville, so it bumped four passengers against their will and lied, saying that the flight was overbooked. In addition to the policy-defying employees, and the brutal police, passengers on the United Flight 3411 Ethics Plane Wreck, which has spare seats aplenty, include

Recent passengers:

1. The United staff responsible for the fiasco added to their ethics foul with this official summary of the incident, cited by the United CEO:

Summary of Flight 3411

. On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.

. We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.

. He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.

. Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.

. Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.

Verdict: Dishonest, self-serving and misleading:

1. Note the contradictory and dishonest phrasing. The “involuntary denial of boarding process” was no longer applicable, because the flight was fully boarded. You can’t deny boarding after you have granted it and it has been completed. There is no “revocation of boarding process,” which explains why this was so miserably handled.

2. How dare a passenger in a purchased seat who had been boarded, seated, stored his luggage and based his plans on continuing a flight resist a demand that he surrender his seat? I would have. What kind of submissive wimp wouldn’t? He was within his rights to object, and United staff should have been trained to handle such a situation and would have, if kicking such passengers off flights had an actual policy and procedures as this summary suggests.

3.  Similarly, the more they harassed him, the more belligerent he became, which is not unreasonable. The United staff was being unreasonable. It just had power. The argument being made is that it is inappropriate to resist the abuse of power. Wrong. Welcome to America, jerks.

4. No choice? No choice but to call in the police and have them physically drag the man off the plane?  That’s Rationalization #25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”

“When people say they had to behave unethically because they had no choice, it is almost always a lie. What they mean is that they didn’t like the choices they had, and taking the unethical option involved less sacrifice, less controversy, less criticism, less effort…in short, less courage, than doing the right thing. Ethics often requires pain; if making the ethical choice was easy, there would be no need to practice being ethical. You may decide that doing the right thing is too costly or requires more personal misery than you can bear—a lost job, a ruined reputation, financial capacity, punishment for breaking with tradition or rules—sometimes that is a reasonable choice. But you still had a choice, and you are still accountable for the choice you made”

As Ethics Alarms pointed out in the previous post, United had many choices. It could have let the increasingly distraught man alone, and found another passenger to unseat. It could have raised the bounty for surrendered seats to an offer no one could refuse. It could have found other transportation for the flight crew that apparently just showed up and demanded to board the flight: it was only a four hour drive to their destination.

2. Next, and sitting in First Class on this Ethics Plane Wreck, United CEO Oscar Munoz, just last month honored as PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year., which tells us how wretched his fellow  CEO’s are in that department.

First, he released this statement:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United, I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

  • How sensitive! United is upset because of the bad publicity, apparently. Awwww. Munoz does not mention how upsetting it was to the freaked out passengers, and especially the doctor who was bloodied and manhandled due to his employees’ incompetence.
  • A passenger gets beaten up, he and three other passengers get kicked off a flight after they had been checked in and seated, everyone’s flight is delayed two hours, and  Munoz is apologizing for some euphemism. What the hell does “re-accommodated” mean? Does it mean “deciding to treat passengers like crap on the bottom of our shoes”? This is a #9 or a #10 apology on the Apology Scale; I can’t decide which. You decide:

#9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.

#10. An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.

  • Munoz has yet to apologize to the victim.
  •  “Further address the situation”? The previous “address” involved treating him like a fence-jumper at the White House. United humiliated him, caused him to be injured, and made him miss his flight. Unless Munoz has a Delorean, the situation was already “resolved”—horribly.

Next,  Munoz wrote this letter to United employees, from which one would assume that the conduct of the airline was impeccable, and the problem was a “defiant” passenger. I’ll be interjecting in bold:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, [Why are you making statements about the episode before you know what happened?[ especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did [Why? WHY? He defied the officers because he had a ticket, a reservation, had paid his money, was seated on the plane, and was randomly fingered for ejection because someone had screwed up and not saved seats for a flight team, that’s why. He  was being mistreated, disrespected and abused, that’s why!] to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees [Who, as you will see, were spinning like a top..]

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane, [Oh, he was politely asked to do something  that he shouldn’t have been asked to do, was he? Well, being polite while abusing someone doesn’t reduce the abuse. Nor was he “asked,” was he? When some one is truly “asked,” one has the option of saying, “No, thanks.” He was ordered to leave the plane.] refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. [It was not necessary to call the cops. It was necessary to find someone willing to leave in exchange for something of value. As soon as it was clear the man was upset, the kind, competent and rational response would have been to leave him alone.] Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. [ Really? United has procedures for randomly pulling paying, seated customers off of planes when they insist that they cannot afford the delay? And the procedure is “Call in the Gestapo and have them rough him up”?] While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right. [United did nothing wrong! It was all the passenger’s fault!]

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation. [ Wait, didn’t you just say that treating an elderly, agitated Asian-American man as if he were an escaped serial killer and causing him to be exposed and humiliated on a viral video was “above and beyond”? Now you’re saying that treating customers with respect and dignity is “at the core of who we are”; are you saying that the passenger was treated with respect and dignity? Do you even know what you’re saying?]

The letter is ass-covering, contradictory, misleading weasel-word doubletalk.

3. Next passenger: former United Airlines parent United Continental Holdings’ Chief Executive Gordon Bethune–Bethune headed Continental Airlines for a decade prior to 2010, when Continental completed a $3 billion merger with United. His comments and attitude point to an industry-wide culture of arrogance, disrespect for passengers, and a lack of service orientation. He, like the United staff and Munez, blamed the passenger, saying:

“Certainly, it’s a very emotional scene. It doesn’t have to have that kind of immature reaction when you’re asked to leave the plane. You should handle it in a different way. The man obviously didn’t want to go, like a child that didn’t want to leave.”

Defending United staff and the security officers, Bethune said they were simply following protocol for overbooked flights and acted appropriately:

“They try to do a professional job. They’re very professional people. But not everybody on the plane is professional and they can create a scene if they want to.”

Wait, there’s a profession for passengers who get abused by airlines and police?

Bethune is engaging in a particularly ugly version of blaming the victim.

The passengers option consisted of submitting to mistreatment and allowing United and the police to get away their misconduct, or making so much of disturbance that the either left him alone, or were going to be doomed to the fate of punishment by public opinion. His conduct was not very different than what protesters have done for centuries to make their grievances known when they are being forcibly removed: make noise, make it as difficult as possible, gain public sympathy.

4. The various industry commentators and business analysts who I saw interview on TV and in the media, who all shrugged off the incident as one that would be quickly forgotten.  I heard one analyst after another say that the airlines know that price, not service matters, that United would suffer no fallout on the stock market, and that this was just the latest social media freakout, like the silly leggings episode, and would have no long-term effects.

Ha! that’s shows what they know. This is, and was easily identified as, a tipping point, the moment when people rush to their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” As I heard these smug fools, my mind kept jumping back and forth between that scene in “Network” and the running gag on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with Lilly Tomlin portraying an incompetent, haughty, snorting operator and ending  parody ads with the slogan, “We don’t care! We don’t have to care? We’re the telephone company!”

United’s stock is falling. its brand is mud. The Feds are investigating the incident, as they should. There are calls for Munoz’s resignation or firing—my bet is that he will not ride this out. The episode has even sparked international outrage.

There will be more boarding this metaphorical flight to ethics Hell before it is over.


36 thoughts on “More On United’s “Ethics Plane Wreck”

  1. A CEO who supports a business model that allows nonpaying customers (dead-heads) or employees to supersede PAYING customers needs to be fired. I believe the idea of United, or any other airline, for that matter is to make a profit, not provide bus service for dead-heads.

  2. I don’t think it speaks well for an organization when they say they have no choice but to call the police on one of their paying customers because he wants the service he paid for. I am still shaking my head at some of the written material coming out of United. We ‘asked’ him to leave, ugh… Describing the passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent’, when they initiated the disruptive and hostile behavior… It’s like getting upset when the person you sucker punched fights back, the nerve of that guy… Honestly, is there not a single person in the organization that raised a giant fucking red flag before this crap was put out for public consumption!!!

    Further, how does the head of the Chicago Aviation police department have a job today? If this is the standard way his officers are trained to respond to these situations, than how has he not been forced out? If this is not the standard way his officers are trained to behave, and they did it anyway, how has he not resigned for a complete failure to do his job.

    • That the airline was wrong is beyond dispute, But I’m torn about the police conduct….

      I remember this blog covering the incident with the crazy Trump-hater getting kicked off a plane for harassing her seatmate. She left under her own power, but if SHE had resisted, and the police dragged her out, I’m sure nobody would be complaining (besides her and her husband). So what should the police have done in THIS situation?

      • She was being disruptive. The guy wasn’t ‘disruptive’ until they tried to force him out of his seat. The man did nothing wrong but sit in the seat he paid for.

        • Like I said, the airline is clearly in the wrong. But what should the POLICE have done in this scenario? If you’re a cop on the airport beat, and you get a call saying that a passenger is refusing to leave their plane after being asked to do so, what should you do?

          • Talk to people and find out what’s happening? Why they couldn’t just pick another person after he said he had patients to see in the morning is beyond me. $800 doesn’t begin to cover the inconvenience of cancelling several patient appointments.

          • Your question about what I would do as a cop in this situation is exactly why the chief of the aviation department needs to either be fired or resign. If his officers do not have clear and specific directions/training on how to deal with this type of situation before it occurs, then he has not done his job. Police have standard operation procedures on how to handle most situations, they train for this, they have lawyers and DAs who advise them on how to police. If this arrest/removal adhered to their standard procedures then whomever wrote and approved them will be fired. I strongly believe it did not, and as the chief he is partially responsible for the behavior of his force. Resignation would be appropriate.

          • The airline police should have done what any trained metropolitan police officer is trained to do: try to defuse the situation before resorting to violence. But these guys are not hired to serve the public: they serve the airline. They are not trained to think for themselves, but to do what the airline tells them they should do. They should be fired, their company put out of business. Morons in positions of power are almost as dangerous as ideologues and terrorists.

            • Airport ‘police,’ TSA, and Airlines are thugs these days, given nearly unlimited authority by the 9/11/01 fallout, and have sunk to the lowest of the low. As people many may be decent human beings (some are not, in my experience and as this incident shows) but as an organization I would not pi$$ on them if they were on fire.

    • I don’t think it speaks well for an organization when they say they have no choice but to call the police on one of their paying customers because he wants the service he paid for.

      I wish I had written that!

    • If he had led with this on Sunday night or early Monday, I think it would have helped especially if some action quickly followed. I would think it would be a 2 or 3 on the scale. Now it looks like he realizes his earlier bullshit was just that and is desperately trying to find a way out. Do you get do overs in apologies? What about the message to the ‘team’ basically telling them what a great job they did?

  3. Jack,

    I hope you’re right, but apathy has been America’s drug of choice for some time, and I’m not sure customers actually care about customer service anymore. I have a feeling this will be forgotten and United will continue to terrorize the friendly skies for years to come.

    That said, I like your scenario far better.


    PS: Seventh time. Should I just call?

  4. Jack, Appreciate the time you took to explain, so very comprehensively, the ethical issues involved in the present United debacle, as well as in the 2013 Delta fiasco. Additionally, you offered several commonsense solutions as to how the situation could have been handled.
    Makes one wonder regarding the overall intelligence of many of the corporate executives who run our various industries, as well as our various governmental departments. I think financial profits motives as well as a multitude of personal biases have clouded their abilities to reason and do what is ethically appropriate.

  5. Arthur in Maine has added a great deal of information and context to the story, which is greatly appreciated.

    I agree with your points in this and the related post: United created a mess but, instead of cleaning it up, it seems to have made it even worse. I am not sure who is advising UA for damage control. Whoever it is is not earning their fee. Muñoz and Bethune have not calmed the situation. I am not sure how the UA employees can be praised for their role in this story. Muñoz’s statement is comically inept. “Re-accommodate”. That is a good one. One wonders about the PR Week award, no? The airline police, . . . Maybe the passenger should have said, “Sitting down. Don’t re-accommodate”.

    Now, you can add the media to the passenger list. News reports are detailing the good doctor’s somewhat checkered past, that his license was suspended, that he has a few criminal matters, and has anger management issues. Apparently, one’s past misdeeds are relevant to being forcibly ejected from a flight.

    But, what about the passenger? Is he a fellow traveler on this plan wreck? Is he without blame? Did he handle himself in an ethical manner? I do wonder if the good doctor shares a portion of the blame, though, mostly because I am of two minds on his conduct. I understand that he did not have to give up his seat. Neither did any of the other passengers re-accommodated; they were inconvenienced and . After all, he paid for the trip, was seated, stowed his baggage in the overhead compartment, and was reading “Pride and Prejudice” (I made that up). He was randomly selected for re-accommodation, but he declined. Should he decline? Why is his travel plan more important than any other passenger? Perhaps one of the three other re-accommodated passengers had vital plans to get to Louisville – a sick relative, a job interview, a job assignment under a tight deadline. Why is the doctor’s patient schedule paramount? Did he violate the Golden Rule? How about when he played the “They are re-accommodating me because I am Chinese” card? Was that ethical? Prudent? How about escalating the level of hostility? Running up and down the aisle and screaming. Was that ethical? Prudent? Mature? The incident inconvenienced 70 other passengers. Some of them may have missed connections because this flight was delayed for over 2 hours.

    But, then, there was no urgency/emergency, from what I can tell. UA was not re-accommodating passengers to make room for a family trying to get to Louisville because of a medical emergency or a funeral, or who were delayed and would miss an important milestone is their family’s life (baptism, marriage, 50th wedding anniversary, . . ). No. They booted paying passengers to make from for their employees. In that context, should the good doctor have given up his seat? Was he unreasonable? Unethical?

    How about the flight crew that needed to get to its flight? Did they think their schedules dictated more urgency than the paying passengers? Are they in the category of the passengers who were denied their free flight because of dress code violations? Were they simply doing their jobs and are without responsibility in this incident? If it is a 4 hour drive to Louisville, could they have driven? Taken Uber? How about catching a ride on another airline (odd, I know, but . . .)?

    How about the three other re-accommodated passengers? Are they Ethics Heroes because they left the flight without incident? They were inconvenience but compensated. Does that detract from their hero status? Or were they weak-willed because they capitulated to authority?

    We leave out the rest of the passengers on the flight. Why aren’t they criticized for not taking action? When it was clear that the good doctor was not going to leave, should one the other passengers have agreed for the sake of the rest of the flight? How about doing nothing (besides a bit of ‘tsk=tsk’) when the airport police dragged this guy out of his sear and down the aisle? Where was the hero who stood up and defended the doctor from obvious abuse? Were the rest weak-willed for capitulating to physical force used on a paying passenger?


    • How about the three other re-accommodated passengers? Are they Ethics Heroes because they left the flight without incident?


      They were inconvenience but compensated. Does that detract from their hero status?

      No. They made a deal. Neither ethical nor unethical. If they capitulated to a deal they didn’t want, they were weenies.

      Or were they weak-willed because they capitulated to authority?

      No. They presumably could handle the inconvenience.

      They would have been ethics heroes if they made a united (HAR!) front with Dao.

    • “Why is his travel plan more important than any other passenger? Perhaps one of the three other re-accommodated passengers had vital plans….”
      He was doing what they should have done. Why should he have capitulated just because they did? If anything, him going it alone makes his stand more brave.

      • I disagree. If this happens to someone else – law enforcement dragging them off a plane – THAT person will be brave. This guy had no idea this was going to happen.

    • I am not sure who is advising UA for damage control. Whoever it is is not earning their fee.

      United’s agency of record is Edelman. They’re one of the biggest, and one of the best.

      I’ve dealt with some situations you’ve probably heard about, but my practice doesn’t rise to this level of visibility. I can assure you, however, that I have, on more than one occasion, dealt with clients who rejected good advice and learned the hard way (hate to say it, but often an attorney had something to do with that rejection. Fortunately, good defense attorneys are now aware of the importance of good communication in PR shitstorms)..

      Ultimately, it is always the client who makes the decision – and that’s fair, because while ethical PR counselors give the best counsel possible, it’s ultimately the client who owns what’s said.

      Remember the whole Ford Explorer/exploding Firestone tire thing fifteen or 20 years ago? Bridgestone – the parent company of Firestone – hired one of the best large PR firms out there several weeks before the story broke. They knew it was coming. And the agency resigned the account just as the storm clouds gathered, because they’d figured out that the client wasn’t going to do what was recommended.

  6. Well I guess the aviation security cops could issue a statement to the effect of “Ve Vas Just Obeying Orders!” which might get them off the hook. Btw, my worst airline flight ever was many years ago was with Continental on a red eye flight from LA to Chicago. I had a dad with a screaming two year old with him who would yell “I want my mommie!!” about every 5 minutes. The flight crew did absolutely nothing to deal with the problem except smile smugly.

  7. Clearly United did not think through their policy, on so many levels. Rather than a policy, I’d call it an incredibly rigid authoritarian procedure that does not allow any flexibility. I work for a large corporation which does not reward creative problem solving abilities (unless expressly approved by five layers of authority, prior to taking the action). It appears that the airline policy does not allow employees (at one of the nations’ largest hubs!) the ability to make decisions that allow any amount of flexibility or thinking outside of the box. The policy is simply a dictate that if A is required, you will do B. And escalate to C. Then D.

    Since 9/11, airlines have been the focus of a lot of changes in a relatively short period of time. In such an evolving climate, surely they must rethink how they want their employees to react to these ever changing, unique issues and problems posed by customers, other employees, and those who would disrupt the airline. But instead of encouraging flexibility it seems there has been a visible increase in rigidity – immediately escalating a misunderstanding or problem into a situation by a lack of willingness to take time, listen and attempt to amicably resolve an issue.

    I’m sure that there are many United employees who could have made some fairly simple decisions to resolve this; hire a sedan and driver for the four employees to drive them the 4+ hours to Louisville. Or offer that choice to customers along with a monetary bonus. Be willing to offer more cash or enticements; after all, this debacle will certainly cost the corporation more than $5-10,000 in the long run.

    What worries me is the willingness on the part of the airlines to immediately escalate to violence. Oh, excuse me, simply removing a disruption from the airplane.

    Man, I hate flying. I hate it even more now.

  8. How do airlines based in other countries handle similar situations? (Is that even worth asking?) Of course, I do not travel on non-US airlines enough to know anything about how they handle booking, overbooking (if that is even done), sudden needs for crew at various airports where the airlines serve, and policies on removal of passengers from a plane before the plane departs a terminal. I am not trying to be funny. I am seriously asking if this situation ever arises in any other airline that is not a US carrier, and if so, what is done.

  9. “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”

    I just want to point out that this waffle is the corporate Pazuzu defense.

  10. More to the story:

    – The flight was apparently operated by Republic Airlines. Republic is a regional carrier contracted by larger airlines to fly under their liveries and brands. Republic also operates as American Eagle and Delta Connection. This is not uncommon, by the way. I used to do a fair amount of business in Oregon, where the local airport was served by Delta and United. But all the flights were actually operated by Skywest, another regional carrier.

    I’d be interested to know whether it was actually a Republic crew or a full-line United crew that needed moving. Not that it changes the optics on this one bit, or that it should – if United contracts a regional carrier, they own the problem.. As I’ve said repeatedly.

    Wouldn’t surprise me to see United sever its contract with Republic as a face-saving measure. Not saying that’d be ethical.

  11. Alas, I fear that the analysts are correct. United’s reputation has sucked epic balls for some time. A good example about how they lost a child and didn’t care here: , leading business writer Bob Sutton to muse that United employees and customers had fallen into a possibility inescapable pit of mutual contempt.

  12. Ha! Should have known you were on top of things.

    Curiously, I have yet to see them pull the it-really-wasn’t-us dodge. The flight was a commuter operated by Republic Airline out of Indianapolis. Stay tuned?

  13. Well, I don’t know if this is even relevant, but it seems to be, if only peripherally, and adds a bit of irony or potential irony to the aftermath of this “plane wreck:” Today is National Be Kind to Lawyers Day. Seriously.
    (Sunday surely was National Be-Mean-to-Physicians-on-Airlines Day. HA!)

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