Why United customers will find it hard to boycott the airline

The video of a bloodied Asian being forcibly pulled from a United Airlines flight sent the company’s stock tumbling Tuesday, prompted calls for the chief executive to step down and sparked a viral campaign in China to boycott the company.

But will the damage last? History suggests it may well not.

As deeply troubling as the video is, analysts said, the emotional fury such incidents generate usually is fleeting, lasting a few days or weeks at most. The reality, they say, is that consumers have long put price, convenience and personal taste ahead of outrage.

And partly because of a rash of recent mergers that left the country with just four major airlines, many customers may not even have much choice. United’s 2010 tie-up with Continental allowed the company to claim more than 50 percent of passenger traffic in Houston and Newark, and to serve 1 in 3 fliers from Washington Dulles International Airport and in San Francisco.

Within minutes of ’s apology, the company’s shares began a resurrection from its public-relations nightmare. United Continental Holdings finished the day at $70.71, down 1.1 percent but far from the 4.4 percent plunge earlier in the day.

The short-lived nature of consumer movements is partly why experts in crisis management often advise executives to placate the public in the short term. On Tuesday, two days after the 69-year-old passenger’s removal from a flight from Chicago to Louisville, United chief executive Oscar Munoz appeared to do just that. Abandoning any defense of the company’s actions, Munoz said: “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”


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