The Margin: One year after a man was dragged off a plane, customers are still wary of United


One year later. Have customers forgiven United Airlines?

In April 2017, United Airlines faced a crisis that went viral on social media in a matter of hours, brought an out-of-court settlement and, eventually, an apology from the company’s chief executive Oscar Munoz. It’s a painful reminder of how a PR disaster in the social media age can spread so fast that it becomes a cultural touchstone for everything people feel is wrong with air travel.

On April 9, 2017, a 69-year-old doctor, David Dao, was forcibly removed from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport because the flight was overbooked. His face bloodied, the man was dragged up the aisle of the United UAL, -1.15%   airplane by a airport security officer after he refused to get off the plane. It was a video that few people will forget.

But can they forgive United? Many customers have moved on and are once again focused on other issues like price and convenience, but a new survey found that some have yet to put the issue to rest. It didn’t help that in the year since Dao was removed from the United flight in such an undignified manner, it experienced several incidents of pets onboard that have either been injured or died.

United’s perception is still far below what it was this time last year. It currently stands at -6.9 compared to 17 in the days before the incident. (Granted, it fell to -40 a month after the video went viral.) So while it’s improved from those lows, it still has a long way to go to regain its previous high. (The airline did not immediately respond to request for comment.)

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Purchase consideration—a measurement of potential sales revenue—paints a different, brighter story for the airline. “With domestic airlines consolidated down to a handful, travelers likely had no choice but to put United back on their ticketing radars, even if they didn’t think much of them,” the report said. It’s still above the industry average for domestic airlines.

On April 10, 2017, 35% of travelers said they’d consider booking their next flight with United and that bottomed out at 18% one month later, according to consumer perception firm YouGov BrandIndex. Currently, 30% of travelers would consider flying United the next time they book a flight, six percentage points above the domestic airline sector average, but still below last year’s level.

However, United’s purchase consideration fell to 25% in March when a flight attendant told a woman to put her dog in an overhead bin of a flight from Houston to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The dog died. United said it would carry out a “thorough and systematic review of our program for pets.” It suspended new reservations for pet cargo after animal deaths on United doubled in one year.

For this latest piece of research, YouGov BrandIndex used its “impression score” and asked respondents: “Which of the following airlines do you have a positive or negative impression?” YouGov BrandIndex defined “travelers” as consumers 18 and over who said they were somewhat likely, likely, or very likely to travel in the next year.