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The now-infamous incident in which an air traveler was injured when he was dragged off an overbooked flight caused worldwide outrage, and airline employees weren’t immune from the fallout.
The April 9 incident in which Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., quickly turned into a public relations nightmare for United Airlines and its chief executive officer, Oscar Munoz, as videos taken by other passengers spread around the globe via the internet. Everyday employees were also affected by the worldwide backlash.
Consultants told Bloomberg BNA that employers have to take active steps to help their employees cope with such situations.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with the incident at all,” Captain Greg Everhard, a United pilot and chairman of the Communications Committee for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, told Bloomberg BNA April 20. “It never should have happened.”
“Flight attendants or any airline crews were not involved in this horrific event,” Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 19 email. “Flight attendants’ role is to maintain a safe and secure cabin. It’s important that passengers recognize the authority of that role.”
“AFA has been in constant contact with our members at United Airlines and at other carriers across the country,” Garland added. “United, along with other carriers, have made policy changes to crew scheduling to prevent a situation where a passenger has to be involuntarily bumped after boarding is complete.”
Crew who have to fly on United planes are now required to be booked 60 minutes in advance, according to another United pilot, First Officer Roger Phillips, who is vice chairman of the Communications Committee for ALPA’s United chapter and, along with Everhard, stressed that he wasn’t speaking for the airline. The new policy is meant to prevent a recurrence of the April 9 incident in which four crew members “showed up after boarding was complete,” which necessitated removing four paying passengers who had already taken their seats.
The airline itself told Bloomberg BNA in an April 19 email, “Right now, we are focused on reviewing and improving our training programs to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first.”
This followed a series of public apologies from Munoz, including one on April 11 in which he said, “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.”
“As pilots, whether we have a military or a civilian background, the one thing we’ve been trained to do is focus on the task,” Phillips said. “That means showing up, being safe and getting the aircraft out on time. That has not changed one bit since this incident, and we should not be judged by this one incident.”
He and Everhard stressed that Flight 3411 wasn’t a United flight and its crew weren’t United employees. Instead, it was a United Express flight operated by Republic Airline, a regional contract carrier that also serves as a “feeder” for American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, Phillips said. And the crew of Flight 3411 wasn’t directly responsible for Dao’s manhandling, which was done by Chicago Department of Aviation police after the crew summoned them.
Nevertheless, Phillips said, “we’re owning it because it was a United ticket.”
Consultants offered some general tips on how employers can help employees, especially those who deal with the public, cope with a storm of negative publicity like United has faced. When an organization is hit by controversy, or sells a product that inherently arouses arguments, “it is not uncommon for employees to bear the brunt of this storm,” workplace psychologist Ilona Jerabek told Bloomberg BNA in an April 19 email.
“It doesn’t matter whether you work directly with customers or behind the scenes: An entire company can be blacklisted because of the actions of just one person,” said Jerabek, who is president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based PsychTests. “When undergoing a public crisis, employees can be a target of backlash, even if they were not directly involved with the incident. To customers, they are guilty by association; their decision to continue working for a company that treats its clientele poorly is simply in bad taste.”
Employees sometimes have to follow company policies they don’t agree with, which can cause psychological stress as they deal with upset members of the public, Jerabek said. “To counter this, companies must practice transparency, and immediately create a plan of action to help employees adjust. Employees should hear the news from their managers, rather than through the grapevine, or even worse, learn about it when they watch the news … this is the least a company can do to show respect for the employees.”
Employers should hire people who are resilient and have good emotional intelligence, and offer them training and support to cope with stressful situations, she said. “While a public apology from the CEO of United Airlines may help with damage control, he is not the one who has to directly deal with the public after the crisis, so steps need to be taken to equip those who are ‘in the line of fire,’ so that damage is minimized, both in terms of the brand and customer satisfaction and employee mental and emotional health.”
“Employers must be concerned with the employees’ view of the company from a brand perspective and if this will have any serious financial consequences on the company that could lead to job insecurity,” Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer at Delray Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm Brandon Hall, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 20 email. “Communication and transparency with employees on what happened and how the company is addressing the crisis would I think be important so rumors and speculation are kept to a minimum.”
Perhaps something good can come out of the United incident for the company’s employees. “Employees are rallying together now and are looking ahead to making the airline a better place,” Phillips said.
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