Lessons From the United Airlines Debacle

by | Apr 17, 2017 | Security

Last week, a passenger on a United flight out of Chicago was forcibly dragged from his seat after United decided it wanted to transport four crew members to Louisville. The 69-year-old passenger suffered injuries during the incident and has since sued the airline. United’s stock price dropped by millions of dollars following news stories about the incident.

We likely don’t know all the details of the situation, but that doesn’t matter when a brand is being tried in the court of public opinion. However, there are things most businesses can do to prevent this type of situation.

Everyone’s Recording–All the Time

Multiple passengers recorded the incident from cell phone cameras, and the footage was likely on the internet before the plane took off. I was once asked by a club owner if I’d be comfortable “dragging a troublemaker into the back alley.” Even if this was the way security was once handled, the ubiquity of cameras these days means any bad action can spread across the internet in a matter of hours. Employees have to constantly ask, “How would this look if it were on the local news?” For security, discretion is often the better part of valor.

The Media Never Gets the Full Story

Traditional media generally do a good job of getting the facts right, but I’ve never seen a news story that involved me personally where everything was 100% correct. In the age of social media, that percentage drops significantly. The video of the passenger being dragged off is disturbing, but it’s five seconds out of a much longer event. While we don’t see the rest of the event, that five seconds gets looped in news stories for the next several days.

There’s not much a business owner can do to disrupt the media process. Even if the head of United felt the situation was justified, the public had already made up its mind. His final apology, “I’m sorry. We will fix this,” was what he should have said from the beginning. Defending against public outrage, even in situations where you feel the public might be wrong, is rarely the best option.

Misaligned Incentives

A Business Insider article states pilots and ground crew receive bonuses for ontime flights. In the situation of a passenger refusing to leave his seat, the crew’s financial incentive is to remove the passenger as quickly as possible. The problem here is the proxy of ontime arrivals is confused with the goals of customer acquisition and retention at a reasonable profit. We’ve seen similar problems in the American car industry where speed of production became a more important metric than customer satisfaction, and it nearly killed the industry.

Employee Power Trip

I don’t know who called the Chicago Airport security or what they told them, but a crew member at some point decided to let security handle the situation. As someone who runs a security company, I often say it’s better to call security than to let a bad situation get worse. However, security has to have training in de-escalation and the support of management to use alternative methods to force. Are security officers called to resolve a situation using their best judgment, or are they expected to follow directions and use force as directed by staff or even management?

Here’s a common situation: A team of nurses will have a disobedient or even violent patient. I’ll be called to “hold down” the patient. When I arrive, my first question is usually to the patient. I’ll ask, “How can I help you today?” As the patient starts to talk, nurses will often interrupt and tell me to physically restrain the patient. Some have even said, “Security’s here. Now you’re in trouble!” as I entered the room. By talking directly to the patient and listening to his concerns, I can almost always gain compliance without the need for force. Staff have to know security are there to fix problems, not bolster egos.

Oversight and Rules of Engagement

I understand the frustration the nurses must feel with an unruly patient, but the situation can almost always be resolved without violence. What security, or even police, need to know before encountering a situation is what level of force they’re allowed or expected to use in response to various scenarios. Often, security is hired as a buffer between business management and difficult situations. What we see over and over, and definitely in the United situation, is that management can’t wash their hands of responsibility by using security. The officers have responsibility, as does the security company, but that doesn’t stop the public from lambasting the company that hired them.

Train Employees to Think Like Marketers

The estimated cost to United in lawsuits, lost customers, and stock price is easily in the millions of dollars. But the crew only made two offers of $400 and $800 in ticket vouchers for anyone willing to give up their seat. When that didn’t work, they used force. It’s easy to see now that United could have saved itself money and headache if crew members had been allowed to expand past $800. Maybe $1200 would have worked. Maybe $800 in cash would have opened the pool to people who didn’t want to fly again in the next year. There was some offer that wasn’t made, but would have saved the company millions.

Businesses might think they’re being fair and that customers are just stubborn, but it doesn’t really matter. Using security as a cost cutting measure is rarely effective. Security should be the last line of defense against violence, property damage, or severe product loss. Using security to save $400 in vouchers isn’t the right solution.


The United problem isn’t unique in business. As technology increases the ability of everyone to record and distribute content, and as the U.S. economy turns toward a future based on a service economy, old methods of doing business need to be updated. Security companies and the businesses that hire them need to realize training in de-escalation and customer service are skills every officer needs to possess.


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