Major Airlines: Navigating the narratives
Updated: Aug 27
You probably remember this story. A United Airlines flight out of Chicago was preparing to depart in April 2017 when four United crew members informed gate agents they needed seats on the fully booked flight. That meant four United passengers would have to give up theirs.
Three passengers volunteered in return for flight vouchers. But when the a fourth passenger could not be enticed to give up a seat, the airline shifted to "involuntary procedures." That basically involved identifying the least valuable passenger in terms of travel history with United, and offering up to $1,000 in compensation.
On that particular flight, Dr. David Dao Duy Anh, a pulmonologist who dabbled in folk music, ranked at the bottom of United's list.
When approached by gate agents, Dao politely declined the offer to give up his seat, according to passengers on the flight, explaining that he needed to get to Louisville, where he was opening a free medical clinic for veterans. As Dao would explain later in an ABC News interview, U.S. soldiers had saved his life by rescuing him from the sea as he escaped Vietnam during the war. The soft-spoken physician wanted to give back.
But to United Airlines, Dao was simply a low-value passenger refusing to cooperate. Chicago airport security was called in. YouTube videos posted by passengers captured footage of a security officer forcibly removing Dao from his seat, banging his head against an armrest, and dragging him off the airplane, his lip bloodied, nose broken and two teeth knocked out as passengers pleaded with the officers to stop. Streaming footage flooded YouTube, and the story led the national news that night.
The news narrative
United Airlines Flight 341 provides a textbook case of handling -- and mishandling -- onboard altercations and the resulting narratives that emerge in the news. For Public Relations, managing these news shocks poses functional, tactical and strategic challenges, particularly as media relations races to keep up with reporters -- and, more recently, virtual, real-time social media streams. National newscasts and streaming YouTube videos typically frame the news narrative that impacts companies, causes and candidates -- often before companies even have a chance to respond.
Based on the YouGov data, breaking national news far and away represents the most significant driver of shifts in brand perceptions for airlines. We will examine the data later this semester when we study media research and crisis communication. For now, let's focus on the news narrative.
So what is a narrative? In rhetorical terms, a narrative is a storyline, used to persuade. In PR circles, narratives are referred to as framing -- words, symbols, content and tone used to shape an audience's understanding of a topic. In journalism, narration has been defined as a genre that uses "voice, point of view, character, setting, plot, and/or chronology" in news stories.
For our purposes in analyzing case studies, a narrative is simply a story line -- questions posed by reporters, explanations published in press releases or news stories, and perspectives or interpretations offered up by eyewitnesses or experts. The common elements of a news story are said to be the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The first four are facts. The last two -- why and how -- are narratives.
Based on an analysis conducted with YouGov of news coverage that moved the needle on consumer perceptions, news coverage that significantly impacted consumer perceptions about airlines can be divided into three categories -- on-board altercations, fatal accidents, and customer service miscues. Let's take a look at the narratives that shaped three of those pivotal news cycles.
Friendly in the skies, not so much on the tarmac
First, let's get back to Dr. Dao.
The day after he was beaten and dragged off the United flight, with the national news amplifying streaming social media videos of the altercation, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz posted a timeline contending that Dao raised his voice, became "more and more disruptive and belligerent," and ultimately refused to comply when he was told to leave the airplane. "Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight," Munoz said. On Monday, United Airlines responded to the coverage, issuing the first of three statements documented by the Associated Press:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly with him and further address and resolve this situation.”
-- United CEO Oscar Munoz
United's public apology -- not about injuries inflicted on Dao but about having to "re-accommodate" passengers -- did not play well against dramatic footage of a bloodied passenger being forcibly dragged down the aisle of the aircraft. United followed it up on Monday evening with an internal email that was leaked to the press, praising airline workers for following company policies.
"Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.
As you will read, 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. 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, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.
I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation."
-- United CEO Oscar Munoz
By Tuesday afternoon, United PR was in full crisis mode. The airline issued a textbook PR response apologizing for the incident, taking responsibility, and outlining steps to "fix what's broken."
The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.
I promise you we will do better.
Within weeks, United had reached a settlement with Dr. Dao and instituted changes to its operations manual to ensure that an incident like this did not occur again. But the damage was done. According to online polling firm Morning Consult, about seven in ten U.S. adults had heard news about United in the weeks after the Chicago incident.
Morning Consult conducted a brilliant study to gauge the business impacts of the incident. The firm posted a poll to determine whether the news would impact consumer choices about flying on United. For the three in ten consumers who had not heard about the incident, the answer, of course, was no. When offered the choice of two virtually identical flights -- one on United and one on a competing airline -- consumers unaware of the news were evenly split on which flight they would book. A coin toss.
Among consumers who had heard news about United recently, though, about eight in ten would book the competing flight -- a significant strategic impact for an airline. And even if the competing flight was slightly more expensive or less convenient, 44% of consumers who heard the United news would choose that flight, compared to 14% who had not heard the news.
The United incident is a case study on the strategic importance of the news narrative, and the functional and tactical challenges that PR faces during a critical news cycle. Based on an analysis of YouGov tracking data, the major U.S. airlines since the 2008 financial crisis have actually experienced 12 mishaps generating news coverage that, in turn, corresponded to significant shifts in brand perceptions.
With the social media shifting functional communications to real time, airlines have had to revise crisis playbooks. A year after the United Airlines incident, Southwest Airlines' crisis planning was put to the test in the first fatal airline accident in the U.S. since 2009.
"Our hearts are heavy"
In April 2018, after boarding Southwest Airlines flight 1380 from New York's LaGuardia airport to Dallas Love Field, passenger Marty Martinez logged into the in-flight wifi and settled in for the flight home. About 20 minutes into the flight, cruising on auto-pilot above 30,000 feet, the left engine of the Boeing 737-700 disintegrated, blowing out a window and sending shrapnel into the cabin.
Sitting in the window seat of row 14, passenger Jennifer Riordan was tragically killed as the aircraft rapidly decompressed. With the crippled plane on an emergency approach to Philadelphia International Airport, Martinez began live-streaming video to Facebook as a nurse on board tried to revive Riordan, another passenger used his body to block the blown-out window, and flight attendants went row by row attending to panicked passengers.
Southwest maintains an industry leading social media monitoring command center at its Love field headquarters. Within minutes after the crew landed safely in Philadelphia, Southwest Airlines issued the first of four media statements posted on the day of the accident.
"We are aware that Southwest flight #1380 from New York La Guardia (LGA) to Dallas Love Field (DAL) has diverted to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). We are in the process of transporting Customers and Crew into the terminal. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-700, has 143 Customers and five Crewmembers onboard. We are in the process of gathering more information. Safety is always our top priority at Southwest Airlines, and we are working diligently to support our Customers and Crews at this time."
Later that afternoon, Southwest issued a second statement confirming details of the accident, and providing reporters with a link to a videotaped statement from Southwest CEO Gary Kelly. Following evening newscasts, the airline issued a third statement confirming ongoing inspections of fan blades on CFM56 engines like the one on the ill-fated flight.
"Our hearts are heavy," Capt. Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Ellisor said in a fourth statement, which also advised the press that the pilots would not be available for interviews. A month after the tragic flight, the pilots and their flight crew were made available for a segment on CBS This Morning. Over a chyron reading "Heroes in the Sky," they described the harrowing final twenty two minutes of the chaotic flight and the emergency landing in Philadelphia.
The crew, which had been on its first flight together, deftly sidestepped somewhat crass questions about how a passenger could be sucked out of a window of an airplane at 32,000 feet. Instead, during the CBS interview, the crew members gracefully discussed the heroics of passengers on the flight, a shared faith of several members of the crew, and the tragic loss.
"You know, the survival of 148 never eclipses the loss of one. And just from a viewpoint looking in, she seemed like a woman with a profile of just being beautiful in her priorities. She seems like she didn't wait until it was convenient or easy to love her lord and her family and her community, and the way she invested in her work just seems like it is still blessing people. I think she left a beautiful legacy."
-- Capt. Tammie Jo Shults
Southwest Airlines sets a standard for corporate PR. The timing of their media statements followed the cadence of the midday, drive time and late night newscasts. The focus of the narrative remained on the family of their passenger who was killed in the accident, and the efforts of their crew. With that in mind, let's shift our focus back to Spirit, a budget airline that faced a now-familiar issue managing cancelled flights -- and communicating to frustrated passengers.
That's the Spirit
Several times during the pandemic, airline passengers have been left stranded for hours -- sometimes days -- as flight cancellations cascaded through airlines' system.
When systems locked up, thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled as a cascade of weather delays and staffing issues pegged to the surge in COVID-19 Omicron infections grounded airplanes and crews.
For the nation's largest commercial airlines, the pandemic has been, in a word, turbulent. The economic lockdowns virtually halted air travel during the initial quarantines, triggering a federal bailout. As travel restrictions eased. social mandates led to on-board altercations over masks and safety protocols that at times turned physical. Most recently, with COVID-19 infections surging to record levels with spread of the Omicron variant, airlines experienced waves of widespread disruptions in flight operations.
Like most airlines working through mass cancellations, Spirit Airlines during an August 2021 system crash responded to media inquiries by acknowledging the problem and identifying a root cause – in this case, undefined “operational challenges.” Spirit spokespeople in the first few days of what became a nearly week-long disruptions also settled on a common narrative -- insisting that a majority of its flights were unaffected.
"We're working around the clock to get back on track in the wake of some travel disruptions over the weekend due to a series of weather and operational challenges. We needed to make proactive cancellations to some flights across the network, but the majority of flights are still scheduled as planned."
- - Spirit Airlines spokesman Erik Hofmeyer on CNN
"In responding to these challenges, Spirit has implemented some proactive cancellations again today to reset our operations. Most of our flights currently remain scheduled as planned."
-- Spirit Airlines spokesperson Field Sutton statement to NPR
Despite those claims, tracking by aviation monitoring service FlightAware told a different story. Based on real-time reporting of take-offs and landings of scheduled flights, FlightAware documented that the disruptions plaguing Spirit Airlines were much more widespread. While Spirit maintained that less than half its flights were affected, the press led with data from FlightAware, which documented that seven in ten flights had in fact been cancelled or delayed, CNN reported.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the Spirit Airlines meltdown, American Airlines began experiencing similar issues with flight delays and cancellations cascading through its system. The airline's media relations team was quick to cite tight staffing during the surge in Omicron infections, and two days of severe wind storms at the airline's Dallas-Fort Worth hub.
The news about the Spirit and American delays were virtually identical. Thousands of flight delays and cancellations had stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers. Spirit responded with jargon -- undefined "operational challenges" -- while American was open about staffing issues and the weather delays.
In managing breaking news, the narrative matters. Misrepresenting facts about an incident streaming on social media or insisting that most of your flights are unaffected despite real-time tracking data runs the risk of making things worse. It seems that identifying a root cause and providing information demonstrating a focus on your customers and an empathy from your organization likely does not add to the turbulence.
Following the pandemic-related flight cancellations, billions of dollars in fares had been refunded due to cancelled flights by the end of 2021, and airline CEOs of the four largest airlines were being called before Congress to explain what had happened. American Airlines CEO during the U.S. Senate oversight hearing calmly walked lawmakers through the cascading events affecting the airline's operations.
What did the Spirit Airlines' CEO have to say? He was not invited.
Kudos to N.C. State grad Drew Jackson for his work on this case study.
OK, here's the prompt.
Watch the CBS This Morning interview,
-- including the second segment --
with the crew from Southwest Flight 1380.
What were some of the narratives that emerged from:
... the crew?
... the reporters?