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United Airlines Faces New PR Problem in China

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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With the recent announcement that United Airlines passenger David Dao will likely undergo reconstructive surgery, United is scrambling to update flight policies.  Dao’s attorney said the 69-year-old doctor sustained broken teeth and a concussion when he was dragged off a United flight after he refused to surrender his seat to airline staff.

Overbooked flights have become a perennial frustration for many travelers faced with longer waits and last-minute reschedules. So it’s no surprise that United is now reviewing its approach regarding this issue.

But the images of Dao injured and bloodied, which went viral within hours of the incident, have given new energy to the debate about bumped passengers and their legal rights.

In last Wednesday’s press conference, Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, asserted that United has frequently “bullied” passengers into giving up their seats when called upon. He anticipated that Dao, who was hospitalized after the incident, will likely become the “poster child” for airline misconduct when it comes to passenger rights.

“It took something like this to get the conversation going,” Demetrio said

Just what the substance of that conversation should be, of course, is still unclear. Demetrio suggested that United Airlines’ missed opportunity was that it didn’t offer more money to passengers to compensate them for the considerable inconvenience of being bumped, the Guardian reported.

From United’s viewpoint, however, the issue has less to do with money and more to do with timing. Its new policy requires staff requesting seat assignments to turn up an hour before boarding, presumably so they can be assigned before passengers check in.

It also bans the use of law enforcement in seating disputes so security guards aren’t called upon to use muscle to eject passengers.

But neither stance takes into account the brewing storm United now faces in Asian communities both in the U.S. and in China, where travelers -- enraged at seeing an elderly Asian-American passenger dragged across armrests and down a narrow aisle -- have begun to boycott United.

As far as American air carriers are concerned, United owns the lion’s share of business between China and the U.S. It flies to cities that its U.S. rivals Delta and American haven’t yet reached and built a legacy on its ability to connect Asian-American consumers with their families abroad. And as China-U.S. travel increases, United faces even greater competition from both American and Chinese carriers.

For many overseas consumers, however, the issue wasn’t really that airline staff called for and allowed security officials to forcibly remove an Asian-American passenger. It was that they didn’t heed when the passenger declared loudly that he was “Chinese” and felt he was being selected because he was Asian.

There’s an unspoken understanding when it comes to business etiquette and disgruntled customers: Perception is what drives business, not the right or might to do so. In the past, a customer blurting out that he felt he was being racially profiled in front of a planeload of people – particularly a doctor who is returning home to care for patients -- would cause dismay to kick in and staff career lights to start blinking. It would prompt supervisors to ask whether backing up and rethinking their strategy might harness better results than ejecting a customer who could argue that he had been “selected because [he’s] Chinese.”

But in this case, it didn’t. The flight attendants, given an assignment to free up four seats, ignored his accusatory statements and allowed security guards to forcibly remove a boarded passenger.

What is interesting is that unspoken business etiquettes that are really in place to protect businesses often seem to function best when civil rights and consumer protections are at the forefront of government policies. They are heard loudest when people see and respect equality as an unassailable right and those enforcing a company policy as an extension of that right.

Unfortunately for United, the story of the flight 3411 public-relations disaster was preceded a few days earlier by another PR scandal, this time involving an Airbnb client in northern California, who prohibited a guest from entering her property because she is Asian. In this case, the proprietor made it clear that she knew she was discriminating, and what is more, that the recent election of a president who campaigned on a policy of distrust of foreigners and “outsiders” gave her the right to deny the guest entry.

“It’s why we have Trump,” the proprietor, who identified herself only as “Tami,” told guest Dyne Suh, and her astonished friends, referring to the American president. “And I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”

It didn’t matter that Suh is a U.S. citizen and had a paid reservation. The proprietor assumed that recent (unsuccessful) efforts by the Donald Trump administration to ban individuals from the country based on nationality and ethnicity served as a signal that she could as well.

Even though Airbnb condemned the behavior and banned the property owner from using its site, the proprietor’s statements carry with them a chilling message: Government policies and actions can serve as examples to businesses and people in general when weighing the rights of others and how those rights should be treated – even when the world is watching.

When it comes to flight 3711, the lawsuit likely won’t focus on whether racial discrimination played a role in Dao’s injuries. That does not appear to be an issue here. According to analysts, the lawsuit will focus on culpability of United Airlines and the city of Chicago in escalating a situation that resulted in the removal of passenger already cleared for boarding. As Demetrio noted, United’s treatment of customers will provide plenty of grounds for discussion about just what constitutes a company’s right when it comes to disagreements and customer safety.

What may ultimately determine United’s future, however, is whether it can maintain its rapport with an increasingly globalized consumer base that wants airlines to remember that perception about a business’ social ethics is everything when it comes to deciding which plane to board.

Image credit: Wikimedia/Lasse Fuss

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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