A shocking video involving a United Airlines passenger being forefully removed from his seat and dragged out of the plane has drawn widespread outrage on social media, with many experts warning that it could do permanent damage to the brand.
On Tuesday, two days after the incident, United CEO Oscar Munez issued a public apology to the customer, but airline insiders and branding professionals say it may be too little, too late.
“Social media and cell phones have changed everything. It used to be said a picture was worth a thousand words, well, a video is worth millions, and a viral video worth multi-millions,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, the largest non-profit consumer organization in the U.S. representing airline passengers, told Fox News.
“We saw it with police shootings and that changed legal guidelines, then we saw children being gassed in Syria, and that changed a president’s mind and policies, and you can’t underestimate that,” Hudson says.
The Flyers Rights president also says his group hopes this latest incident will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to securing more rights for modern fliers.
“Right now U.S. carriers are at the bottom in terms of customer satisfaction in surveys done. The only industry that comes in lower is cable television,” he says.
The backlash over the dragging incident, which clearly hit a nerve with passengers who have long criticized carriers' cost-cutting measures (like seat shrinking and overbooking), has yet to die down.
Late Tuesday, the hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, devoted to tongue-in-cheek catchphrases meant to replace the airline’s “fly the friendly skies” advertising tagline, was popping up all over the Internet.
But of course this isn’t the first time airline employees or airport officials have been caught with a cell phone and then called out on social media when things go viral.
Just last month, United faced widespread backlash after refusing boarding priveleges to teenage girls wearing leggings. Though the young women were flying free under the airline's guest pass program-- and therefore required to adhere to a stricter code of dress-- celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and William Shatner blasted the airline for the policy.
In March 2016, two intoxicated women on a Spirit flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles started playing music loudly and, when fellow passengers started to complain, the women started to play the music louder-- and then a fight broke out. The mayhem was recorded and posted to a passenger’s Instagram page.
William "Rick" Crandall, Ph.D., chair and professor of management, marketing and International Business Department at University of North Carolina at Pembroke, says flight attendants and staff must now always be aware that cell phones are on them at all times, and “their customer service is being scrutinized both before and after the flight.
The professor continued, "We live in a virtual world, and social media is recording it.”
Though social media trends come and go, in this new digital world where posts live forever online, experts say the dragging incident is likely to impart serious, longterm damage to the legacy carrier's brand.
Jim Linder, president and owner of marketing firm Fresh Branding Group suggests it might take United years to recover.
"They can’t stop people from using smart phones. It's a PR disaster for United," Linder told Fox News. "They’re going to have to run advertisements to convince passengers they are the "friendly skies," because they certainly haven't behaved that way."
Hudson says if United goes under it would affect many thousands of employees and suppliers.
"This airline has gone bankrupt twice, and it may not survive this time if passengers defect," Hudson says.