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Editor at Large

An opportunity for United Airlines

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Apparently, “Fly the Friendly Skies” only refers to when you're actually in the air.

United Airlines’ mistreatment of would-be passenger Dr. David Dao, captured on video, has turned into a public relations’ nightmare that is leading to lost business and promises by consumers of much more lost business.

What should United Airlines do?

We turn to Ken Kilpatrick, CEO of Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations in Pottstown and King of Prussia, who is experienced in crisis management for clients. (He has blogged about the United Airlines incident in his humor blog, RealClear Satire.)

He said United most definitely has a PR problem, but that part of its recovery includes not falling victim to existing public sentiment. And it includes a great opportunity to forge a new image.

“Its leadership needs to address the unfair practice of overbooking flights in a transparent way that will build customer trust,” Kilpatrick said. “It also needs to pledge commitment to passenger safety whether in the air or on the ground.”

Part of United’s message needs to address that when a passenger poses a threat to others, the airline has an obligation to protect its peaceful passengers, he said.

“I would encourage United … to express and stand by the truth,” Kilpatrick said. “And as it does, it needs to engage in a long-term strategic public relations campaign to effectively communicate with passengers and show its commitment to safety.”

Doing so gives United an opportunity to show a new face and to develop a “delightful personality,” he said. “For example, Southwest Airlines and Spirit airline attendants use humor, jokes and even skits to begin a pleasant ride. These airlines know the frustration and abuses generated by the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and the frustrated mindset people are in by boarding time.

“Think about it. How many smiles do you see at any gate? Very few.”

Kilpatrick said smart airlines take action to turn those frowns upside-down once passengers board.

“United needs to determine how it can adopt a similar approach,” he said. “If it does, within 18 months, Dr. Dao will be a forgotten incident and passengers will recommend United.”

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