United Slow to Address Public Concern Over Paid Meals on International Flights

Last Updated Aug 25, 2008 10:50 AM EDT

Being in public relations for an airline has to be one of the toughest jobs around, but that's no excuse for not doing it well. It came out last week that United would start charging for meals on some transatlantic flights along with a handful of other changes not likely to be well-received by the public. You would think that a change like this would result in a carefully coordinated PR effort, but you'd be wrong. It was one mistake after another, as explored on the Things with Wings blog.

See, they had to know this would not be well-received. Every time a benefit that was previously included for free becomes an extra charge, people get angry. And when word got out that United had been surveying about charging for meals internationally, the public feedback was almost universally negative. So why is it that when it came time for the change to be made, it wasn't officially announced by the airline for a long time after the news leaked?

It first broke when some operational employees at United received a bulletin with the details on August 19. As you might expect, that bulletin got leaked to me and to several other outlets. As things always work in the new real-time world of media, this was out in the public eye and causing reactions almost immediately. My post went live on Cranky Flier on the morning of August 20.

As the day went by, we heard nothing publicly from United. Non-operational employees had said they still hadn't seen anything official from the company, and the public outcry became louder. Finally, on August 21 at 620p, United put out a press release calling the changes "a test." Why were they not out in front of this in the first place trying to position it as a test? Probably because they really didn't think that it would be this big of a deal. That is shocking, if true. But it shows that United has a long way to go in managing public opinion.

The reality is that calling it a "test" is really just PR spin. Everything is a test. If it doesn't work, the airline can always change its mind. But the fact that it took so long for United to respond means they lost many opportunities to try and minimize the impact of the change, and that was a mistake.