Among the memes making the rounds on social media is ‘United’s leaked training video’. A scene from the comedy Airplane, it has cabin staff and volunteers line up to subdue a hysterical passenger by shaking and slapping her repeatedly in the face.
It’s not too far from reality. The forcible removal of Vietnamese-American doctor David Dao from flight 3411 has been no laughing matter—for United Airlines or for many in Asia who see the singling out of a passenger of Asian descent as racial discrimination.
United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, yesterday admitted there had been "systemic failures" and said that United will no longer allow police officers to remove passengers from overbooked flights. (Although it bears noting that flight 3411 was not overbooked. United's decision to remove passengers came at the last minute and was in order to accommodate four of its own staff.) Either way, the damage has already been done, fueled by what many saw as a slow and insincere apology by Munoz when the incident first came to light.
China in particular has responded to the incident with anger. State broadcaster CCTV, wrongly labeling Dao as Chinese, on Tuesday denounced United’s action as “barbaric”. Following that came hundreds of thousands of ferocious social media posts, boycott calls and destruction of United mileage cards. The feeling appears to be similar in Vietnam.
What about Japan, a market where United also has a high profile? Many of the people Campaign spoke to, from both an industry and consumer perspective, have pointed out that US airlines have long suffered from a poor image in the country. One Japanese observer who used to live in the US said she now avoids US carriers after repeatedly experiencing poor service relative to Japanese airlines. Another source said US carriers are typically known for “low-quality service, dirty interiors and rude flight attendants”. For many, the United scandal vindicates their disdain.
“The incident is obviously boosting negative perception not only of United but all American airlines,” said Tetsuya Honda, managing director of Blue Current. “This has created an even stronger reason for us not to choose them.”
Then there is also the suspicion of an anti-Asian stance, which many have expressed on social media. Some have voiced concern that they run the risk of racist treatment flying any airline within Star Alliance, which includes ANA as well as United. It seems doubtful that United’s actions were racially motivated, but a combination of factors means the perception is there.
One PR agency head in Tokyo said he sees the prominence of race in discussions around the incident as “the result of an intersection between Trump’s travel bans and perceived racial profiling”. The four passengers selected for removal due to overbooking were apparently chosen at random by a computer. “That the emotion is overshadowing the rational here seems to suggest a building perception out there that US brands are at best isolationist, at worst racist,” he said.
A Japanese public-affairs consultant also reckons the antipathy could spread to other brands and impact the desire to travel to the US. America has already experienced a tourism ‘Trump slump’ since the globally unpopular president’s election and strict immigration screening. Analysts estimate it has cost the country approaching US$200 million in tourism revenue.
“Japanese people will definitely see this as a sign of the ‘barbaric’ side of US society,” the consultant said. “Policemen killing black men on the streets, and airport police dragging an Asian guy out of a plane—people will associate the two in their mind. The victim being Asian sends an unintended message that this can happen to a Japanese when travelling in the US. The recent confusion in airports over immigration is still fresh in people’s minds. Ferguson, Trump and now United Airlines … This certainly will give the impression that US society is spinning out of control and going in a bad direction.”
Not everyone is so pessimistic. While some affluent frequent travellers may well ditch US airlines for a time, observers agree that more casual travellers are still likely to be attracted by low fares. Toshi Takata, senior vice-president at Weber Shandwick in Tokyo is hopeful that United’s headache could be a boon to competitors that can position themselves as friendlier while remaining cheap. “This incident could pose a great opportunity for other American companies to promote themselves” to Japanese travellers who can’t afford the more expensive domestic carriers, he said.