Aaron Alter partner at Wilson Sonsini. Photo by Jason Doiy. Aaron Alter partner at Wilson Sonsini. Photo by Jason Doiy.

Just over a week after videos showed passenger Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from a United Airlines Inc. flight that United initially said was overbooked, the airline giant continues to face criticism.

From customers calling for a boycott to U.S. senators pushing for answers on the practice of overbooking flights, the incident has caused outrage not just because of how United handled the situation on the airplane itself, but also how the company initially responded to bad publicity after the videos surfaced.

Aaron Alter, executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at Hawaiian Airlines Inc. told Corporate Counsel in an interview this week that there are lessons from the United crisis. Companies, he said, need to check their policies around flight booking and moderate their own public relations responses to prevent any similar incident from “becoming such a forest fire.”

“This has shone a light on the circumstance of overbooking, even though it wasn’t overbooking [that was a problem with United]…and people on the front lines being able to react appropriately,” Alter said. “We are making this a case study on what not to do and then reinforcing what one might do in a similar instance,” he said, adding, “I’m sure all airlines are doing post-mortems.”

 

Other airlines are indeed reacting. According to The Washington Post, Delta Air Lines Inc. has authorized employees to offer nearly $10,000 to incentivize passengers to give up seats on overbooked flights and American Airlines Inc. has updated its Conditions of Carriage to ensure that a passenger who has boarded will not be removed to give a seat to another passenger.

United Airlines and its general counsel, Brett Hart, did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment. But in United chief executive officer Oscar Munoz’s most recent statement, he said that the airline needs to do “a much better job” in serving its customers.

“The incident that took place aboard Flight 3411 has been a humbling experience, and I take full responsibility,” he said in the April 17 statement. “This will prove to be a watershed moment for our company, and we are more determined than ever to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

At Hawaiian Airlines, where most of the carrier’s roughly 200 daily flights are filled with leisure travelers, overbooking is not all that common, according to Alter. But he said the reality for airline carriers, in general is that overbooking is “just economically part of what airlines have to do in order to fly with a profitable passenger load.”

Despite the tendency to overbook, Alter said there is “a big difference” between giving up your seat while waiting to board, versus after the passenger has put away their baggage and taken their seat.

Alter said that United could have offered a bigger financial incentive to get people to volunteer their seats. “This is one of those proverbial problems that money could’ve solved…because you absolutely can and should offer enough money that someone would give up the seat,” Alter said. “It’s inconceivable that you wouldn’t have come up with something where the person making that call had the discretion to offer enough money [to get people to voluntarily give up seats] or knew enough to call to get the authority [to offer more money].”

United compounded the problem with unfortunate immediate responses to the videos of Dao’s removal, Alter said.

In the midst of the negative publicity, United’s Munoz issued a series of widely criticized responses, first apologizing for having to “re-accommodate these customers” then, in a letter to employees, claiming that “established procedures” were followed in removing the “disruptive and belligerent” passenger. On April 11, Munoz finally said the airline would “take full responsibility” for what happened, but the damage had already been done.

The fact that most people are now armed with the ability via smartphone to capture—and widely disseminate—any misstep a company makes has certainly impacted the way an in-house lawyer has to think about protecting a company’s legal and public standing, Alter pointed out.

“I think everything about practicing law in a company that deals with the public, whether you’re selling consumer goods or an airline, has changed because everything now is videotaped or photographed and made ubiquitously available almost instantaneously,” Alter said. “Things tend to get magnified.”

But that doesn’t change the general response when a company makes a mistake, according to Alter. “History teaches us that you want to own it, acknowledge it, say you’re sorry and do everything you can to make it right for the people who were affected,” he said. “If you take the right steps in the immediate wake of it, you can prevent it from becoming such a forest fire.”

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