United Airlines’ contract – to which every passenger is bound once they purchase a ticket – probably allows the company to remove someone from their seat for no reason.
In fact, a summary Internet search brings a clause in United’s contract – RULE 21, clause H 2- which allows the company to “remove from the aircraft at any point passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives.”
In case you haven’t heard yet, a few days ago David Dao --a passenger already seated on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky-- was violently removed from the plane. Chicago Aviation police literally dragged him down the airplane’s aisle. Mr. Dao’s crime was refusing to deplane after the airline decided that – since the flight was overbooked and nobody was volunteering to get off – he would be staying behind.
I don’t know whether the airline was applying clause H 2 or any other clause pursuant to a removal of passengers. What I do know is that this would have been just another bad flying experience for the affected passenger and his fellow travelers if not for the fact that today we all walk around carrying video cameras on our phones.
Someone recorded the incident and the footage went around the world in real time.
And what did United do? It behaved like a big white elephant, completely oblivious to how much things have changed. Since it knows that its contract – and federal regulations – gives it almost dictatorial authority over its passengers it apologized... for an overbooked flight. It took the company’s CEO Oscar Muñoz two days to come up with a public statement of contrition, which came only after he had congratulated his employees in an email for “re-accomodating” the passenger.
The consequences were epic. By Tuesday, United’s shares fell around 4 percent in New York. In China – the passenger was apparently of Chinese descent- the incident remained for days as a trending topic in social media.
Curiously, this is not the first time that United makes this kind of mistake. Less than a month ago, it ignited another social media storm when it did not allow two young passengers to board a plane wearing leggings. The girls were apparently the daughters of United employees and the company cited its dress code as a reason to deny them boarding. Social media couldn’t care less about United’s dress code and all hell broke loose on Twitter and Facebook.
What United – and many other big companies – fails to understand is that it is no longer making unilateral rules. It doesn’t matter how big you are and how many lawyers you can hire to write your contracts – today, power is in the hands of the people.
Companies have nowhere to hide. They cannot claim how great they are with their customers and rough them up when they don’t want to deplane. Today, companies are put on notice: they need to be fair, nicer, more responsible and more socially conscious.
Our digital age turned the world into a small town. Any misstep is witnessed – in real time – and judged by the world community. In that sense, there’s a saying in Spanish that roughly translates as “small town, big hell”.
United’s reputation crashed and burned this week in that very hell.