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Crisis Communication Advice: United Airlines

Back Story:

On April 9th 2017, Dr. Dao boarded Flight 3411 from Chicago, Illinois to Louisville, Kentucky. After all the passengers were seated, the flight attendant gave an announcement explaining how they needed to remove four passengers in order for their crew members to aboard. Three passengers volunteered but that still was not enough. The flight attendant then chose a person randomly to leave the aircraft. The person chosen was Dr. Dao. Instead of complying, he refused. Police officers were then called onto the aircraft to forcefully remove Dr. Dao from his seat and off the aircraft. The result, caught on video, left Dr. Dao's face covered in blood. After cell phone video of the altercation surfaced, United Airlines took a huge backlash in the media on how they handled the incident.


How United Airlines Handled The Situation:

The CEO emailed his employees a letter on Monday (04/10) discussing and describing the situation:

"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, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. 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.

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."


  • On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crew members 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.

***Twitter response on Monday (April 10, 2017) at 11:27am:

***Twitter response on Tuesday (April 11, 2017) at 12:11pm:

***CEO Interview Wednesday (April 12, 2017) - with ABC:


What They Did Wrong


1.) United Airlines put out 3 statements. Only 1 statement is needed in a crisis situation. The statement needs to be informative, direct, and include all important information and resolution to the public and their audience. This avoids any mixed up narratives.

2.) United's spokesman contradicted the company's initial statement by changing the narrative from "overbooked" to — rather than disrupted at the last minute to transport off-duty crew.

3.) In the letter to the employees, they put the blame on the passenger (Dr. Dao) by calling him "disruptive" and "belligerent." The overall tone in the letter was passive aggressive.

4.) This happened on Sunday (4/9) and United is STILL releasing new forms of apologies. By doing that, they are adding fuel to the fire which is continuing to damage their stock and reputation.

5.) United waited too long to offer some type of settlement to the passengers and victim.


What They Did Right

1.) United followed procedures. When Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat, they called the Chicago Aviation Security Officers to handle the situation upon the aircraft, which somewhat wipes the blood off their hands (no point intended). If United employees had decided to remove Dr. Dao from his seat, resulting in an injury, not only they would not been following procedures, they would have found themselves in a much deeper hole than they are currently in.


My Approach

1.) As soon as the video surfaced, a letter to the employees would have been typed and sent Monday morning (April 10, 2017).


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, please avoid any contact with news and media outlets regarding this situation. Direct all questions, comments, and concerns to the Communications Department. Our CEO, Oscar Munoz will soon release an official statement on behalf of the company.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience in order to ensure a better customer relationship between United Airlines and our staff. I want to also commend you all for continuing to go above and beyond in ensuring we fly right but safe.

- Obi Okezie

Communication Director

United Airlines

"Fly the Friendly Skies"


2.) Monday morning/early afternoon April 10, 2017, I would then construct an emergency meeting with the communications department and executive staff, including the CEO to brief them on what actions we would need to take.

- I would write an apology letter for the CEO to the public and post it simultaneously on our website and all social media platforms in English and since United Airlines has such a diverse audience, I would interpret the statement intro different languages that would also be available on United's website.


On April 9, 2017 after Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were then approached by crew members that were told they needed to board the flight departing from Chicago to Louisville. After offering travel vouchers to accommodating volunteers, we sought to our involuntary procedure. After the refusal of a passenger, Chicago Aviation Security Officers were then called to enforce our policy, which unfortunately escalated into a catastrophe resulting into anger and despair.

On behalf of United Airlines, I want to sincerely apologize to the passengers, victim, and everyone else who were offended by the events that occurred on Flight 3411 Sunday night. This event is not a reflection of how we value our customers and passengers at United. Starting imminently, we will begin necessary steps to avoid and prevent situations like this to ever occur again.

Passengers who were aboard Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017 will receive a full reimbursement and travel voucher. The victim will receive life-time flights with United and coverage of any medical expenses if necessary. United will also begin to create new procedures to reduce the overbooking in flights for a better travel experience for our passengers.

-Oscar Munoz

3.) Take action. Follow through with the promises made and accept the reality. Yes, United Airlines will suffer a lost of revenue and backlash from the media but the important thing to realize is that the company took the best actions to prevent their airlines to take a permanent loss. It is always better to bite the bullet when you are in a crisis situation like this.

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