Like many of you, I’m appalled by the footage that emerged from United Airlines flight 3411 today. In the video, which has started trending on every major social network, law enforcement forcefully removes a paying customer from the seat that he purchased a ticket for by dragging him by his arms. While the actual circumstances of the incident may very well go beyond what’s depicted in the video footage, this is a public relations nightmare for a brand with a history of gaffes including:

  • Destroying thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment, and only offering to compensate the owner after a video documenting the incident went viral.
  • Telling two female employees attempting to board a flight that they could not wear leggings, a common clothing choice for millions of women.

In the extremely competitive airline industry, mistakes like these can cost an airline millions of dollars. I, for one, refuse to fly with United Airlines for any reason, but this post isn’t about my personal viewpoints or brand choices.


Instead, I’d like to consider how this incident affects United Airlines from a marketing perspective, and what other brands can learn from this dramatic incident.

What Happened on United Airlines Flight 3411?

We know that United Airlines needed to get a flight crew to 3411’s destination so that they could work another flight. Getting flights out on time is an understandable priority for an airline, but the means by which they accomplished that goal today was incredibly short-sighted. Apparently, United officials asked passengers to voluntarily surrender their seats, and, when none did, they began randomly selecting passengers to kick off of the plane. The passenger in the video that’s circulating refused, and things got ugly. Rather than considering the customer’s viewpoint and acting with empathy, United Airlines & law enforcment officials opted to act in their own self-interest and get physical with a paying customer. Other passengers whipped out their cellphones, and now we’ve got high-definition footage of a doctor being dragged off of United Airlines flight 3411. One of the many versions of this video that’s been uploaded to Youtube has been viewed more than 40,000 times as of this post, and another version has been shared just as often on Facebook, with tens of thousands of consumers expressing outrage in comments.


What You Can Learn From United Airlines Flight 3411

As a business, there are going to be times when you make mistakes that impact your customers negatively. In some cases, you’ll have a perfectly justifiable reason for denying them the very thing they’ve paid you for. However, doing so can be disastrous. After all, few companies have the brand authority and budget of a company like United Airlines. In today’s world, everything is recorded, reported, and criticized. If you want to protect your brand, you’ve got to have this in mind at all times. You should never, ever abuse a customer for insisting that they get what they paid for. Protecting your brand should be the responsibility of every employee, company policy be damned. Your employees need to understand that their actions, justifiable or not, can have a huge negative impact on your company once they’re recorded and put out there for the world to see. In the case of United Airlines flight 3411, the man being dragged off of the plane was a doctor, who claimed that he had to report for duty at a hospital the following day. The choices made by United Airlines gives the impression that keeping their flights running on time is more important than a doctor saving lives. You’d have to try pretty hard to make a bigger customer relations mistake.

 Key Takeaway From United Airlines Flight 3411

The key takeaway here is that the old saying “the customer is always right” is more important today than it has ever been. United Airlines acted selfishly today, and they’ll likely lose a great number of potential customers as a result, including myself. When you have to choose between what’s convenient for your company and satisfying a paying customer, do what United Airlines failed to do today and remember that your choice will likely end up recorded and documented for the world to see. It’s likely smarter to bite the bullet and compromise your own convenience to make a positive impression on your customers, rather than bloodying their faces and dragging them across the floor.

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