United Bumped Its Last Customer


United Airlines just sucked its own brand, such as it is, through a jet engine.

It achieved this self-defeating feat by trying to bump four passengers, to accommodate its own employees, en route from O’Hare to Louisville.

Bumping is a common practice in the airline industry — and, in the hotel industry.

The carriers always overbook passengers, often by 50 percent, assuming that a certain number of them will cancel their reservations.

On flight 3411, on April 9th, three passengers willingly obeyed United’s command to deplane.

One, however, a doctor, refused the $800 offer to do so — upon learning that he’d have to stay overnight in Chicago. And, he made big headlines in the process.

NOTE: DailyMail reports that this doctor is a felon, in need of anger management, who traded prescription drugs for secret gay sex with a patient half his age and took them himself. But, nobody at UAL knew this at the time of the incident, and no future flyers will remember this salacious detail — only that UAL mistreats customers.

What happened next demonstrates a total lack of common sense and regard for customers.

The gate personnel called the cops, who dragged this customer, by his arms, out of his seat and down the aisle — in full view of shocked passengers … and a rolling camera.

This is a perfect example of a low-margin, product-centric company with no concept of branding.

Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, in true MBA-speak, responded with this gem:

“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 the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

Ironically, PRWeek, in March 2017, conferred upon Munoz its “Communicator of the Year Award.”

People around the world, totally disgusted by the video below and Munoz’s tone-deaf, dismissive riposte, began to trash the airline. Comedians and pundits piled on.

Notwithstanding that, Mr. Munoz compounded his — and the shareholders’ — mess by doubling down to employees:

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.



Imagine the maître d’ of a restaurant asking your party of four to vacate the premises to accommodate the kitchen crew. Then, when you refuse, the cops drag you out by your arms.

Simple solution: Learn to operate a calculator. Keep raising the financial offer to deplane, even to $5,000, until someone takes it. And, someone will. Problem solved.

Five grand is cheaper than the eye-popping loss of $1.4 billion in stock value this morning, not to mention the cost of repairing the shredded brand, such as it is. I say “such as it is,” because I have no idea what the brand was prior to this avoidable incident.

United’s new brand: “We don’t give a shit about you, and we can prove it.”

United won’t have an overbooking problem anymore. Instead, it will have an underbooking problem. Methinks UAL has bumped its last customer.

Later on April 11th, after the stock crashed and the US Department of Transportation promised to investigate, Mr. Munoz miraculously changed his tune:

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

Parting Advice to CEOs

Branding is your #1 responsibility and priority. Ignore this axiom at your peril, as Oscar Munoz did to his peril.

Create and demonstrate a strong brand, which is not tied to any product — and then walk your talk. Force your employees to know it, heed it, and prove it.

Never be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
POSTSCRIPT #1: UAL Crews No Longer Will Eject Passengers

POSTSCRIPT #2: UAL Boots Newlyweds Off Plane

POSTSCRIPT #3: Delta Now Offers Passengers $10K to Vacate Seats

POSTSCRIPT #4: UAL Board Strips Munoz of Chairman Title in 2018

POSTSCRIPT #5: UAL Will Offer $10K to Overbooked Passengers


About the Author

Marc Rudov is a branding advisor to CEOs,
producer of MarcRudovTV, and author of two books:
Brand Is Destiny: The Ultimate Bottom Line and
Be Unique or Be Ignored: The CEO’s Guide to Branding.


© 2017 Marc H. Rudov. All Rights Reserved.

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