United Airlines CEO supplies a [email protected]#$%-ing priceless lesson for us all

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Just too painful to watch! (It’s the customer service Darwin Awards story of the year)

When United Airlines oversold flight 3411 by four seats, the crew offered $800 to passengers to reschedule.

Nobody moved.

United needed to put four crew members on the plane, so they randomly chose four passengers and commanded them to de-plane.

One was Dr. David Dao. He refused to move, insisting he had patients to see the next morning. So they called security.

Security guards literally DRAGGED him out of his seat and off the plane. Horrified passengers caught the incident on video. You can see blood oozing from Dr. Dao’s mouth.

Nothing goes viral like a big corporation dragging a bleeding 67 year old doctor down the aisle of an airplane!

The USA Today Headline said:

United Airlines CEO doubles down, says employees followed procedures, flier was ‘belligerent’

I quote:

“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,” the letter says. “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.”

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a BAD APOLOGY?

This has to be the worst apology I’ve heard in years. I predict United CEO Oscar Munoz’ head will roll over this.

This is a STELLAR example of being technically right about a bureaucratic policy, but having an emotional IQ of minus 12.

There’s something very very important we all need to glean from his awful apology.

So before I get to the meat of it… let’s give United Airlines the benefit of the doubt.

  • Let’s set aside the fact that United has been financially mismanaged for decades. Let’s forget about the massive government bailouts, the strikes and union conflicts.
  • Let’s ignore the fact that whenever I fly United, I always notice their flight attendants seem beleaguered and stressed. I look in their faces and I see men and women who appear to be working and living in a toxic environment.

Let’s suspend all that for awhile.

  • Let’s assume that because of the thin margins and economics of the airline industry, United really and truly had no choice but to overbook the flight.
  • And let’s imagine that United really and truly had NO CHOICE but to get 4 passengers off that plane. Let’s say they really did have to, for some reason, put 4 crew members on that plane instead.
  • And let’s acknowledge that nobody on that plane wanted to go.
  • And United really was between a rock and a hard place.

Then if I were CEO Oscar Munoz, here is what I would have said:

"So many options for growing my business, but what should I do NOW?" Tell me your most pressing business problems and I'll show you your BEST next step.

“I was as horrified as all Americans everywhere when I witnessed a 67 year old doctor being dragged from one of our airplanes.

“As CEO of United, I take full responsibility for this. It is utterly against our values for any passenger to be treated that way. I have personally called this man and apologized and asked if he will meet with me and our board members privately, so that all of us can express our sorrow over this incident.

“For a very complex set of reasons, the airline had no choice but to ask four passengers to de-plane. In this particular situation, none of the passengers were willing to re-route. We have never encountered that exact situation. Our policy manual did not provide an appropriate set of actions for our crew.

“Had this passenger been carrying weapons or behaving inappropriately, then the use of force would have been entirely appropriate. But it was not appropriate for this 67 year old doctor. So we will be revamping our procedures. We will also closely examine the systems that led to this flight being overbooked in the first place.

I apologize to our employees, our passengers, our Club members, and all airline patrons everywhere. We will make sure this never happens again.”


The only way to get forgiveness is to issue a GOOD apology.

One of the things they never teach you in business school, or PR school, is how to issue a sincere and meaningful apology.


And if you can’t apologize properly, you’ll never be forgiven properly.

This incident dinged United’s stock price and gave them a black eye in front of millions of people.

From now on, every time United overbooks a flight and has to ask passengers to re-route, this story will be murmured throughout the entire plane. This incident cost the company somewhere between $10 million and $100 million.

Everybody knows that regardless of any policy or situation, no passenger who bought a ticket and who was promised a seat should be violently dragged from their seat.

And yes, somebody is guilty.

Swallow your pride, Mr. CEO (ALL of us are guilty at times, are we not?) and admit your guilt.

I promise you, everything will go FAR better afterwards.

Perry Marshall

P.S.: This abomination is what happens when PROCEDURES matter more than PEOPLE.

Post your comments below!

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About the Author

Perry Marshall has launched two revolutions in sales and marketing. In Pay-Per-Click advertising, he pioneered best practices and wrote the world's best selling book on Google advertising. And he's driven the 80/20 Principle deeper than any other author, creating a new movement in business.

He is referenced across the Internet and by Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, INC and Forbes Magazine.

65 Comments on “United Airlines CEO supplies a [email protected]#$%-ing priceless lesson for us all”

  1. I was on a Delta flight last summer where, after having already rescheduled some passengers and giving compensation (I was called the night before and offered $300 to re-book, but declined), once we were seated, they found that, due to the high summer temperatures, they still needed 6 people to come off the plane. They ended up offering $1000 each in travel vouchers and 6 very happy customers departed the plane and we took off! Everybody else on the plane seemed pretty happy, too!

  2. When I first came across this story I was at my local gym glancing up occasionally at one of the TV screens with no sound. Seeing a person being roughly manhandled from his seat and down the aisle of an aircraft I immediately thought it was another terrorist attacker being whisked off……..well you wouldn’t treat a paying client who is a law abiding citizen and was quietly sitting there minding their own business like that……would you?

    At your recommendation Perry I am currently reading “Simplify”. I believe the CEO of UAL may benefit from reading same although it may be a bit above his head seeing he made such a meal of the basics of how to treat a valued client. A 16 year kid at McDonald’s would have handled it better. Maybe it is too late now for him to learn not to bite the hand/s that feeds you – piranhas gain the competitive edge by doing one thing well – forming a strong relationship with the CUSTOMER.

    Looks like UAL just had a crash landing. Cheers.

  3. Oddly enough, this situation reminds me of the picture of President Bush 41’s amazement over self-checkout tech in grocery stores.

    A hazard of being in the rarefied air of the 1% is being totally out of touch with the lives of your constituency (customers). And the compounding hazard is that psychopaths are attracted to positions of power.

    The CEOs position in society, and/or their personality type, is handicapped when it comes to empathy… and tone deaf when it comes to what it means to actually feel sorry (empathy) for the misfortune of others.

  4. This is corporate arrogance at its finest. Standing behind its policies and rules in order to justify immoral and evil behaviour. It’s in our policy book, so it must be okay. This is the kind of thinking that rulers have always used to justify wrongdoing. I hope the company, and the individuals responsible for this receive a just consequence for terrorizing a person who has dedicated his life to the healing of others.

  5. Is this really that surprising how bad their customer service is? It’s appalling and disgusting. And it comes from the same company that is known for breaking guitars – remember the video about United’s awful customer service that went viral called “United Breaks Guitars”? Here’s the video for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

    Makes you wonder what’s next for them?

  6. Headline from the future (irony included):

    UAL files bankruptcy due to overbooking flights!

    It was nice of United to teach all the other airlines how to react in such a situation. The funny thing is there will be an equally reprehensible video showing something similar by some other company in the next 30 days. Large corporations have a hard time changing with the times, instead they are stuck with their manuals, procedures and bureaucracy.

  7. Oh, please, all you outraged people…don’t you understand that while undergoing his recent heart transplant, the surgeons mistook a stone for a heart…and that tells it like it is!

  8. The Doctor took an impatient, unreasonable and inflexible attitude toward the Airline’s request & Airline Security responded an equally impatient, unreasonable and inflexible show of force.

    Airlines’ real guilt (in this particular instance, United, but they’re all involved) is for failing to make it perfectly clear, up front, that passengers may be asked to re-route for any of a number of reasons… and for failing to require that passengers understand and agree, also up front and in writing, to comply with an airline’s request to be re-routed should the need arise. I know that the legal agreement between the passenger and the airline already basically states that… “we can remove you at any time for any reason from one of our flights”… however—it’s buried under the usual overload of legally worded x designed to be opaque information…

    And even though it happens all the time… Most Doctors have come to expect deferential treatment such that if/when—Thangs Happen!.. that the Rest of US take care to ensure that “whatever” does not happen to happen to—Them.

    Furthermore—All of US (on personal as well as business levels) have been guilty of failing to allow reasonable margins in our schedules for those entirely possible-yet-impossible-to-predicte-exactly-when&where type events that do occur & Disrupt Our Plans…

    And few fields are worse about holding standards of—TOTALLY MAXED-OUT EXPECTATIONS THAT CAN REALLY ONLY HAPPEN IF EVERYTHING GOES PERFECTLY ACCORDING TO PLAN—Than The Fields of Health Care & Air Travel…

    and this poor Doctor & this entire unfortunate situation are Exhibit A for the sort of damage THAT does to a Our Psyches over time.

  9. Another example of the teflon airlines industry feeling they are untouchable. They try to intimidate innocent customers due to the wide scope of enforcement afforded them due to the dangerous environment of flying.

    BTW. This is also a great lesson in firing up your readers and getting a spike in comments. Tying a well known national issue that has gone viral, into your blog, and its message, is priceless.

  10. New ad campaigns coming out:
    “Fly Delta. We won’t beat you up.”
    “Fly American. We’re on the less violent concourse.”
    “Fly Southwest. The same cattle car you come to love without the O’hare beatings.”

    CEO’s of such large companies should have qualified communications assistants to deal with things like this.

  11. But @JonSpaihts had a response to United that was even better. I can’t reproduce the strikethrough and red type of the original, but I’ll do my best with brackets and caps:
    This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for [having to] CREATING THE SITUATION THAT LED US TO [re-accommodate] ASSAULT, INJURE, AND PUBLICLY HUMILIATE [these customers] THIS HUMAN BEING. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of [what happened] THE THINGS WE DID.

    That so-called apology is a masterpiece of passive-aggressive, lack-of-agency PR bullshit. “What happened”–seriously? It didn’t just “happen.”

  12. Please send this to all university business schools– may as well start with all elemenary schools. The lost art of empathy.

  13. I loved Merriam-Webster’s tweet on this:

    Merriam-Webster ? @MerriamWebster
    ?’Volunteer’ means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.”

    (replying to) 8:08 PM – 10 Apr 2017
    United: ‘Our Team Looked For Volunteers’

  14. There is no excuse and no forgiveness for this greedy airline –they should be boycotted for being a Hitler company–fly the friendly airlines ?!! My ass–they need to go down–Southwest can take them down–WE beat our competition not our customers! All of these people need to be prosecuted and CEO sued and removed–they will never live this down–and we will never ever patronize this troll company and Congress should investigate this matter!

  15. Perry,

    “You can’t expect honesty from people who don’t know the value of being human”

    I was recently at Harvard Business School for attendting one of my best mates’ OPM graduation ceremony and guest lectures. One of the professors’ at the school called Father Raman. He did tell us that he does not care what is your value/valuation rather he cares about what values you have.

    If companies have soul then they should preach customers & speak the truth. They do teach these at good Business Schools :)

    I agree to what ever you have expressed, I would have done the same “True Apology” than “Diplomatic Apology”


    Ami Verma

  16. This makes me think of your recent newsletter with your conversation with Ken McCarthy on being purposeful on playing defense to PREVENT your business from losing money. We may not know how much loss this whole fiasco caused United, but that “apology” probably magnified it 10x instead of reducing it 10x. In our day and age it seems that learning how to own our mistakes and genuinely apologize could very well be $10,000+/hr skills for business owners and CEOs.

  17. While they’e at it, Buy the Doctor a lovely Mansion, and a state of the art clinic to take care of his patients if he so wishes & Lifetime travel to go wherever he wants to go with his family, First Class. I’m sure this costs less than 100 million dollars.

  18. I would never in a million years do that to one of my customers. And what kind of “apology” was that!! The Man and his family deserve to fly anywhere for free for the rest of his life. And with a competitor not United Airlines to rub it in.

    Fredy Rosales

  19. Talk about a CEO being out of touch. Munoz probably still doesn’t get it.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed the procedures manual to read:

    “When we overbook our seating, you may need to give a beating”.

  20. I agree with your Suggested Apology Quote. Perry! I would also follow up with ongoing reports of measures being taken to NEVER have this catastrophe EVER happen again. A good example is the BP Oil Spill catastrophe’. in the Gulf Coast. BP, while cleaning up, reported blow by blow on measures being taken to correct their mistake, and at the same time, showing their compassion and human side to the company. It will take years for this black mark to go away, if a continuing communication with customers and prospects is not done. But with a continuing communication, and developed ongoing relationship, probably 1 year, and a salvage of millions of dollars, United might even rise to Number One. One never knows.

  21. If it was unlawful to overbook a plane, then no airlines competitiveness would be affected by only booking the plane only to its proper capacity.

  22. Perry, maybe you could make a course called 80/20 apologies or 80/20 customer service. Your better apology is priceless. :)

  23. Based on how you describe United Airlines, I think they might go the other route and enforce that all cell phones must be turned off at all times on their airplanes. They definitely don’t want this type of disturbing video circulating ever again.

    That’s the speed of news these days. Real people posting real videos in real time on social media long before a reporter can show up to cover the story.

  24. United will have to do something extraordinary to salvage this debacle. No excuses. When we mess up with our customers (it happens) we start by listening, apologize, read back what we did wrong, explain how we believe it happened and personally apologize again. A good apology earns respect and a lifetime customer. Good luck United…

  25. You are absolutely right, Perry. United will be my LAST choice until massive policy changes are made at United. AND, a proper admission of guilt and apology are given.

  26. I’m guessing this is also a result of earlier bad decisions, reacting instead of planning: just in the past month, United was in the news for ejecting crew member’s children.

    Perhaps after that last event, they reacted by instituting a new policy giving higher preferential priority to crew members and their families . . . which was then applied (or misapplied!) at their paying customer’s expense.

  27. I would like it if people stopped using “I apologize…” in place of a real apology. “Apologize” is a verb. It is something you do. It conveys nothing about your state other than that you have chosen to apologize, which may be for purely calculated reasons.

    Instead, say that you are sorry. “Sorry” is an adjective. When you say “I am sorry…” you are conveying something about your internal state- an emotion- sincere internally felt regret for what happened.

    And, please, never never say “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused…”! You might as well say “F*** You, I really don’t care, my PR person is making me do this, and I have no spine.”

  28. Perry, you are absolutely right in that this is wrong. Charging a person for a flight who is then left humiliated and bleeding is just unbelievable. However most flights are overbooked by all airlines to cover for mishaps, no shows etc and keep as many bums on seats as possible – and this is policy for *all* airlines.

    I read a response that also the United were at fault at several steps, the first and most important was to auction of the seats with free flights at the GATE, before boarding. They would have had cleared those 4 seats in no time and saved this whole mess. I hope they do lose millions – putting policy before people is being more BELIGERANT than they claim the doctor was IMHO.

  29. Unfortunately, the art of apologizing is dead. Dead. Cremated. Customer Service departments have not been taught this fundamental skill which, if executed properly, can mean the difference between a satisfied customer or a bonafide trainwreck. I spent more than three hours yesterday dealing with a data recovery company that completely bungled my order. They even admitted it. But the magic word was never uttered. Not even close. This is after hours of speaking to the account rep, his supervisor, as well as the guy running the day-to-day operations of the entire company. Their minds don’t even go there. They can’t form the word on their lips. Totally sad. It’s probably because the art of apologizing is not something they teach you in business school. It’s something that stems from emotional intelligence, of which there is, unfortunately, a dwindling supply of these days. We shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of thing from the airline industry. You’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that hates its customers more than this one does.

  30. Perry, I think United pretty much guaranteed that they will never have the problem of overbooking in the future. Problem solved. I know I’ll never fly them again.

  31. Very well said, Perry! I think it’s really difficult to achieve any sort of success without ownership and responsibility, both of which seem to be lacking in this incident. An incredibly important lesson for us all as entrepreneurs and as human beings.


  32. Not used in this particular case, but it seems like half the apologies I see/hear blow it with one tiny word: IF, e.g. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” That’s not admitting fault or guilt. It’s blaming the victim, suggesting that they’re being a baby. Even PR pros make this mistake surprisingly often.

  33. I have 250k miles with them and will avoid them like the black plague from now on. wonder how many more times this will play out.

  34. Many Thanks, Mr. Marshall…this is the best advice I’ve seen in a long while about handling a difficult situation. I’ll remember this going forward for both business and pleasure whenever there’s an issue that needs to be resolved when I’m responsible, and also as a customer to determine if PROCEDURES matter more than PEOPLE!

  35. Amen Perry. First time I’ve posted a comment on a company Twitter page about their shoddy practices.

    Besides… don’t these firms have PR department or forms on retainer?

    If I was on the BoD, there would be a fast meeting with the CEO about this… it gets worse – this video has exploded in China, and guess who has many routes to that country?

    CEO Munoz, Methinks you’ll be looking for another job soon.

  36. Very insightful, Perry. Perfect apology.

    Really a systems failure in a way and, like most disasters, a combination of many factors coming together at once — passenger’s adamant refusal, no one accepting incentives, staff not being authorized to up incentives to the point where they WOULD definitely have gotten takers, poorly trained security personnel, etc.

    Probably most likely to happen to United for the reasons you state, but maybe COULD have happened to any airline (with a few exceptions) if all the wrong elements happened to come together as they did here.

    1. Munoz explained this himself: “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.”

      Translation: “Bravo! Somebody was told to get those 4 pilots on that plane, and they did whatever it took to make it happen. No backtalk. Now *that’s* the can-do attitude I’m talking about!”

      From his remarks, it’s clear that Munoz prizes “can-do” above all. Hey, overall it makes the planes run on time.

  37. Absolutely correct. I must book two flights today, and I will make sure neither is on United.

    But that’s merely a personal, invisible decision that will have no direct effect on United, its CEO, or its policies. Therefore I will take time and effort to write a letter stating what I’m doing and why. Otherwise, it won’t matter.

    Richard Lacey

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