United’s social media nightmare leaves Delta CEO to defend airline overbooking


Delta had some good news to talk about yesterday, but as United’s self-inflicted PR disaster continues to cause its share price to lose altitude, there’s really only one topic of conversation.

How not to do crisis comms…United-style

So, you’re the CEO of airline Delta and you’re wheeled out to talk about beating your quarterly profit expectations. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that the one question you’re going to get asked about is United’s utter mishandling of removing a paying passenger from a plane.

So it wasn’t that surprising that Delta Chief Executive Edward Bastian had some reassuring words at the ready, declaring:

I am confident when or if people had an opportunity to look at how Delta has managed it, they would say Delta is doing a pretty good job of it.

Of course, away from the specific incident with United, this week has seen a lot of pent-up anger about the practice of airlines overbooking flights in the first place, with many asking why the technology isn’t in place to avoid such situations?

Here, Bastian was in defensive mode – Delta’s as ‘guilty’ as any other carrier when it comes to overbooking, which is possibly why he avoided any direct exploitation of or comment on United’s PR disaster. Instead he insisted:

Overbooking is a valid business process. There are operational considerations behind that. It’s not a question, in my opinion, as to whether you overbook, its how you manage an overbook situation. At Delta, we have done a very, very good job of managing our overbook as we lead the industry in that regard.

Our numbers are 10x better in terms of involuntary denied booking spend than some of the airlines who advertise that they don’t overbook, but clearly do in terms of having involuntary denials. If you think about the full year of 2016, we had, in total, 1,200 denied boardings for the entire year, that’s 1 in 100,000 passengers.

So I don’t think it’s a significant challenge for us. I think it’s very much about giving our frontline the tools and the flexibility to empower them at the first point of contact and that’s what we will continue to do.

The other question that was bound to come up was Delta’s cancellation of around 4,000 flights earlier this month following heavy thunderstorms around Atlanta. That was in part at least due to crew allocations being tied in to IT systems that buckled under the pressure of the chaos. This followed an incident last August when IT issues caused a nationwide systems crash.

While confirming that fresh investment in technology was a priority, Bastian insisted that the most recent wave of cancellations were not directly IT-related:

It wasn’t a question that the IT didn’t work. It actually worked and it worked as they designed [it to work]. It got overwhelmed by the volume of broken rotations and cancellations and diversions, all of which needed to be put together on the fly at a level, an unprecedented level, of volume that overwhelmed the systems a bit. So, the systems are working throughout. It was the size and the magnitude and the volume that we are experiencing that caused the delay.

United loses altitude

Meanwhile back at the United cataclysm of bad news, the airline’s stock price took another tanking for the second successive day as CEO Oscar Munoz was pushed out to do yet more ‘mea culpa’ interviews, now professing that his overwhelming feeling when he saw the video of the passenger being dragged off one of his planes was one of shame.

That’s a significant walk back in positioning from his original characterisation of the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. Munoz now says that the passenger was not at fault at all – albeit only after an excruciating 6 second pause when asked the question during a TV interview with ABC News:

He can’t be. He was a paying passenger sitting on our seat in our aircraft, and no one should be treated like that – period.

The problem for Munoz is that his original wording was spread all over the internet in seconds and trying to take that back is, well, impossible. And to try to spin it as:

The initial package of words used fell short of truly expressing what we were feeling.

just suggests to me that whoever came up with “re-accomodate” as a term to describe physically assaulting a customer is somehow still in a comms job inside United!

In another development, every passenger on the now notorious flight is being offered a refund on their ticket. The chances of this removing the prospect of a rash of claims for compensation for emotional distress seem remote.

Meanwhile the passenger at the center of all this has got himself lawyered up and will be giving a press conference later today. That will be all over social media within minutes, so any United PR flacks who were looking forward to a quiet Easter can forget that idea.

And as the Twitter memes and protests continue, online petitions calling for Munoz to resign or be fired are pulling in thousands of signature. Those are falling on deaf ears so far, with Munoz telling ABC News:

I was hired to make United better and we’ve been doing that and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Whether that remains his decision is open to question so long as social media continues to escalate and magnify the scale of this problem. If that share price remains under pressure, there might yet be only one last roll of the dice to try in an effort to put a lid on the scandal.

My take

Delta’s Bastian showed considerable restraint in not exploiting United’s disaster, but then people, glasshouses, stones etc. When we have a situation where the CEO is having to justify overbooking as a perfectly reasonable business process, it’s time for a long hard look from the regulators I think. This nightmare for United has unfolded online and is going to go down in the annals of digital marketing/PR and customer management as a seminal example of how not to handle a crisis. A old colleague of mine, crisis comms expert Alex Woolfall, provides  a very good critique here that any organisation in an age of digital and social platforms should take on board.

Image credit - ABC News