United Airlines is learning how to say sorry with feeling, says Guy Kelly.

It has been more than four decades since Elton John declared sorry to be the hardest word - and if the behaviour of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is anything to go by, many are still struggling with the term in 2017.

The businessman was forced to apologise this week, after footage of a passenger being forcibly removed by authorities on an overbooked flight from Chicago to Kentucky went around the globe, showing the man, who refused to give up his seat, being dragged, bloodied and screaming, from the plane.

In his letter, Munoz wrote: "Like you, I was upset to hear about what happened last night. The facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did ... "

That was the first hint that he would attempt to deny wrongdoing entirely, confirmed by the lines that followed: "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."

Earlier in the day, Munoz's official statement had taken a different tone, apologising "for having to re-accommodate these customers", and promising his team would be "reaching out" to the man involved. This unconvincing HR-speak was then compounded by the masochistic individuals behind United's Twitter account, who had already taken a martial stance against the outraged and defended their staff. Things weren't looking good.

In failing to properly apologise, Munoz - who last month received a "communicator of the year" award from industry publication PR Week - had managed to turn a colossal mistake into a fully fledged crisis, and in the process stole the title of "most despised corporation in America" from his previous employer, PepsiCo.

"It's a real screw-up," confirms Alan Stevens, a reputation specialist. "There are four rules around making public apologies as a business leader, and they failed on all counts."

According to Stevens, the first golden rule of corporate apologising is speed: get your say in first to limit the damage and give the impression of owning up to it; Munoz's letter came nearly 24 hours after the debacle. Then you need to empathise with the people affected - in this case, not only the passenger but those around him.

"He hasn't considered the distress caused to his other passengers here," says Stevens. "The problem is bigger than defending the actions of his staff, he needs to apologise to those clearly upset by having to witness the event."

After that, making a show of having fixed the issue in future is key, before adding a final layer of generosity, such as free flights. "You need to stick to that blueprint, no matter how sure you are that your company hasn't done anything wrong. With a smartphone, everyone is a reporter, so it's no use trying to explain yourself. Your sympathy should be with the customers, otherwise they'll vote with their feet."

Crystal Pepper speaks to the media, saying she was horrified by the treatment her father received.

In contrast to Munoz's masterclass in how not to say sorry, Stevens points to the crisis management skills of Sir Richard Branson, who won praise for his speedy and honest apologies after the Grayrigg Virgin Trains derailment in 2007 and the 2014 Virgin Galactic crash in the Mojave Desert, both of which saw employees lose their lives.

"He's an example of a CEO who understands that you need to be upfront and personal in this sort of thing, expressing immediate sympathy and giving people all the information they'll want.

"Within hours, people were thinking about those things differently because of Branson's great work. Importantly, too, he was there at the sites.

"Image is everything, you cannot be seen elsewhere, like Philip Green on his yacht during the BHS case last year."

This was United's second recent attempt at clearing up a major PR failure; last month, the airline caused another Twitter tempest when two teenage girls were told they couldn't board a flight wearing leggings. United lashed out at complainants, brandishing their protocols against such attire for flyers travelling on "buddy passes" for friends and family of employees, rather than merely apologising for causing upset.

Experts say it isn't impossible to maintain dignity in the face of a mistake.

PepsiCo last week pulled an advert featuring Kendall Jenner, after criticisms that it was "racially insensitive". The company said: "Clearly, we missed the mark and apologise. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout." The language used is vital. Munoz did not mention the words "sorry" or "apology" in his internal memo, merely expressing his "regrets" that the situation arose.

"You need to think about the ramifications of getting that apology wrong, because often it's much, much worse if you don't get the follow-up right. Mistakes happen, but the nature of the company's response says a lot about their ethics in general," says Rasheed Ogunlaru, a life coach. "All people want to hear is an authentic message and some action that ensures it won't happen again. Reputations take years to build and seconds to lose. It's not worth risking anything."

Lawyer accuses airlines of bullying, says passenger dragged from plane likely to sue

The passenger dragged from a United flight lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose and a concussion, his lawyer said yesterday, accusing the airline industry of having "bullied" its customers for far too long.

Cellphone footage of David Dao being dragged from the plane caused outrage around the world.
Cellphone footage of David Dao being dragged from the plane caused outrage around the world.

"Are we going to continue to be treated like cattle?" lawyer Thomas Demetrio asked.

The passenger, Dr David Dao, has been released from hospital but will need reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said at a news conference, appearing alongside one of Dao's children. Dao was not there.

The 69-year-old physician from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, was removed by police from the United Express flight on Monday at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after refusing to give up his seat on the full plane to make room for four airline employees.

Cellphone video of him being pulled down the aisle on his back and footage of his bloody face have created a public-relations nightmare for United.

Footage of David Dao being dragged from a Uinted Airlines plane. Photo / AP
Footage of David Dao being dragged from a Uinted Airlines plane. Photo / AP

One of Dao's five children, Crystal Pepper, said the family was "horrified, shocked and sickened" by what happened. She said it was made worse by the fact that it was caught on video.

For Dao, who came to the US after fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1975 when Saigon fell, being dragged off the plane "was more horrifying and harrowing than what he experienced in leaving Vietnam", Demetrio said.

Demetrio, who indicated Dao is going to sue, said the industry has long "bullied" passengers by overbooking flights and then bumping people, and "it took something like this to get a conversation going".

"I hope he becomes a poster child for all of us," the lawyer said.

In a statement issued immediately after yesterday's news conference, United insisted that United CEO Oscar Munoz and the airline called Dao numerous times to apologise. Munoz himself said on Thursday that he had left a message for Dao.

But Demetrio said neither Dao nor his family had heard from United.

Demetrio said his client accepts the apology.

But the lawyer questioned its sincerity, suggesting United acted because it was taking a PR "beating".

Demetrio was unable to say precisely how Dao was injured. Dao didn't remember exactly what occurred because of the concussion he suffered, Demetrio said.

Pepper said her father and mother had been travelling from California to Louisville, Kentucky, and had caught a connecting flight at O'Hare.

After what happened, Dao "has no interest in ever seeing an airplane" and will probably be driven to Kentucky, Demetrio said.

United had selected Dao and three other passengers at random for removal from the plane after unsuccessfully offering US$800 ($1145) in travel vouchers and a hotel stay to customers willing to give up their seats.

The three officers who removed Dao have been suspended from their jobs at the Chicago Aviation Department. The department's roughly 300 officers guard the city's two main airports but are not part of the regular Chicago police force, receive less training and cannot carry guns inside the terminals.

- additonal reporting AP