Business

Outcry Over Dead Dog Intensifies Pressure on United CEO

United Airlines has managed a feat to which no company aspires — outraging the world twice in less than a year. The death of a puppy in an overhead bin this week raises anew the question of whether the carrier’s CEO can hang onto his job.

United has sustained a series of embarrassments on Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz’s watch, from the tragic loss of a French bulldog on Monday to the surreal death of a giant rabbit in United’s care at the Chicago airport. Munoz survived one of the worst corporate scandals in recent history almost a year ago, when a video captured airport officers forcibly dragging a United passenger down an airplane aisle.

Outcry Over Dead Dog Intensifies Pressure on United CEO

Oscar Munoz

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Airline insiders say this latest blunder is unlikely to cost Munoz his job, given his successes with stabilizing the airline’s workforce and improving on-time performance. Yet Munoz already lost his elevation to chairman of United Continental Holdings Inc. over his handling of the dragging incident. And escalating social media attention to each gaffe extends their life in the public’s mind.

“The problem is United has long had a culture that some might describe as not customer-oriented and others might describe as anti-customer,” said Bruce Hicks, a former head of communications for Continental Airlines.

‘Got a Problem’

Board members should be thinking about how to change United’s culture and who should be the leader to do it, said Ben Baldanza, the former chief executive of Spirit Airlines, a company with its own history of poor customer service. While he doesn’t see Munoz or President Scott Kirby losing their jobs, he said “any one of these instances are terrible on their own, but you link them all together and you realize you’ve got a problem.”

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy declined to comment on speculation about Munoz’s future.

Chicago-based United finds itself in a bad-news cycle that is difficult to break out of, said Hicks, who fended off negative press in the 1980s over Continental’s difficult merger with the defunct People Express Airlines. After the video surfaced of officers bloodying passenger David Dao last April, Munoz compounded the damage by criticizing the abused customer’s behavior.

Service Reforms

He then quickly reversed course, pledging sweeping changes to United’s customer service practices. Recently, the airline rolled out a training program for thousands of employees called Core4 that will encourage them to offer more compassionate service.