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United PR:  At least we don’t shove the children out at 35,000 feet!

Sunday morning United Airlines once again proved that they have some of the worst public relations people in the business, which is likely a reflection of their top management.

The Situation
Two young girls, ages estimated to be around ten to eleven years old, were prevented boarding a United Airlines flight from Denver to Minneapolis with their family. These were children, not adults, nor young adults. According to United Airlines, they were flying on what is known in the industry as a “Buddy Pass,” which is a relatively free (taxes have to be paid) ticket that is one of the benefits of airline employees.

The girls were wearing leggings, which again, according to United Airlines, is in violation of the dress code of people flying on a Buddy Pass. The gate agent apparently approached the family and told them the girls could not board the plane wearing leggings.

It is important to note that two of the girls did not have any other clothing options at the gate, and the family apparently checked bags with the girl’s clothing in them at the main ticketing, where a United representative had to weigh the bags, check the tickets, and confirm the identifications of each of the passengers. Despite this close contact with the passengers, the ticket agent did NOT prevent the children, nor the rest of the family from heading to the gate.

The gate agent that confronted the family was involved in a “tense” discussion of the dress code issue in front of other passengers. At one point the gate agent bragged, “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.”

This became a major public relations issue because passengers in the area were witness to the scene and a passenger from another gate investigated the situation and reported it on Twitter. The gate agent’s handling of the situation was overt enough to cause another family, not involved in the incident, to have their daughter put on a dress over her leggings.

United later reported that the girls later changed and boarded another flight.

What United Should Have Done
It boggles the mind as to the many public relation fails occurred by United staff, but here is what the public relations people should have said and done:

On Sunday, March 26, a family was boarding one of our flights on a special ticket that includes a dress code requirement for the passenger. One of our gate agents determined that the children were not dressed according to that policy, and the family was not allowed to board the flight.

While the gate agent technically followed our policy, we regret that this situation became a public scene. We also regret that our staff did not remind the family of that policy when they checked their bags at the main ticket counter, when the children would have been able to obtain appropriate clothing before their bags were checked.

Our policy is meant to encourage a professional appearance of those passengers who are flying as a benefit of being employed, or being a family member of one of our employees. When this involves children, we attempt to be sensitive to the difference in the typical appropriate dress for their age.

We regret to the manner in how this situation was handled and apologize to the family involved and to the passengers who were witness to this situation at the gate. We are reviewing our policies and how those policies are enforced.

The United Blood Bath
Rather than apologizing, United decided that it would work to sway public opinion against the traveling family and humiliate them further. Their announcement in response to the situation put all the blame on the children and their family and implied that the gate agent who created the scene was the hero.

It is a Trump-like strategy that is based on never admitting failure, even when the failure is obvious. It did produce a wave of approval by people who enjoy watching someone being crushed by a more powerful and insensitive force.

However, this type of strategy builds mistrust of an organization and clearly demonstrates United’s lack of empathy for its passengers, paying or not. It also demonstrates the lack of humanity by a corporation that doesn’t understand the deferred cost of bad public relations, and proves that United doesn’t know the quality of mercy.