Skip to Content

Despite The PR Nightmares, People Keep Flying United

In this July 25, 2013, file photo, a United Airlines plane takes off from Newark Liberty International Airport, in Newark, N.J. United Airlines told KHOU-TV in Houston that a flight from Houston to Ecuador was delayed on May 11, 2017, after a scorpion was reported aboard the plane.
AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

United Airlines has had a tough year, to say the least.

First, there was the doctor who was violently dragged off a plane last April at Chicago O'Hare airport due to an overbooked flight. That same day, a scorpion reportedly fell from an overhead bin and stung a passenger. The following month, a pet rabbit died in-flight. Most recently, a passenger's pet bulldog died in-flight after being stored in an overhead bin and a Kansas-bound German Shepherd was sent to Japan by mistake. 

With one public relations disaster after another, United employees are reportedly unhappy — but ironically, customers are still buying United tickets and taking United flights.

According to historian Nancy Koehn, boycotts against United haven’t stuck, unlike those against other major corporations — one reason being that United places itself in a strategic spot.

“You have an airline with a huge number of flights that are at the top of the Expedia lists and is trying to get their costs down, often on the backs of employees and passengers,” Koehn said during an interview with Boston Public Radio Tuesday. “You have all these alternatives to fly, and United owns a bunch of them ... there is not the external pressure, indeed there is the opposite kind of pressure to keep people flying the abominable airline.”

Koehn says United needs to show more of an open willingness to change, first by showing remorse and then demonstrating that the company is willing to do the work to make things better.

“We do have a company with, shall we say, a more than minor service problem,” Koehn said, “and as a consequence, a very major brand problem.”

Harvard historian Nancy Koehn joins us every week. She holds the James E. Robison Chair of Business administration at the Harvard Business School. Her latest book is "Forged In Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times."


WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.