United Airlines has some long-term branding issues, and that’s not just because the COVID-19 pandemic has put the airline industry in cold storage.
Consider the case of Dr. David Dao, the passenger who was dragged off a United plane in 2017 when he wouldn’t give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Those who didn’t often fly, or who didn’t fly United, were aghast and appalled. Those of us who flew United with any regularity shrugged our shoulders and said, “Yeah, I can see that.”
United was dead last in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey in 2019, according to the Chicago Tribune — and yet, the airline was improving, which should have been a warning sign. Now, like every other major carrier, it’s scrambling to woo travelers, make friends and influence people.
It’s going to have scramble a bit harder after how they treated the Orban family.
According to the New York Post, the Orbans were traveling Friday from Denver to Newark International Airport, United’s New York-area hub. It was Eliz Orban, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter.
Toddlers being what they are, the 2-year-old wouldn’t wear her mask. United’s policy — which, sadly, isn’t unique — is that, once you hit your second birthday, you magically become able to handle mask-wearing at all times. If you aren’t, off the plane you go.
And thus, the Orban family was summarily ejected from the flight.
“We just got kicked off the flight because our 2-year-old would not put on a mask, and we tried,” a tearful Eliz Orban said in a viral video posted to social media.
Today we got kicked off of a United flight going from Denver to Newark because our 2yo would not “comply” and keep her mask on. Go see the full IGTV on my Instagram @elizfulop ? pic.twitter.com/KXCICsBSMj
— Eliz Orban (@elizfulop) December 12, 2020
The video also showed footage of Orban’s husband, who was not named, trying to put the mask on the girl.
“Come here, you have to put this on,” Orban’s husband told the girl. “You have to.”
She continued to cover her mouth with her hands, however, making the task impossible.
The video then showed a flight crew member approaching the family and saying they were “going to have to ask you to grab your belongings and exit the aircraft.”
Orban’s husband explained he was trying as hard as he could, but that wasn’t good enough.
“I’ve got to ask you to get off this plane,” the crew member said.
“We can’t force her,” Eliz Orban said. “She’s literally holding it, and she’s crying.”
But, no, officialdom being what it is, they were told to get off the plane. Meanwhile, their car seat and bags were sent on to Newark without them.
“Since our bags weren’t taken off the plane (they did get our child seat) – we have to wait until tomorrow till they deliver it to our house in Breckenridge which is 2 hours from” Denver International Airport, Orban added, according to Heavy.
She added they’d flown four times with their daughter on United and hadn’t had an issue until Friday.
United isn’t the first airline to get touchy over fussy toddlers refusing to wear masks. In September, American Airlines had a similar to-do over a 2-year-old who refused to put on a mask; the child and his mother were kicked off the flight in spite of the fact the airline’s policy said children 2 years old and younger were exempt. A week before that, Southwest Airlines had the same problem with a high-profile toddler ejection. JetBlue hit the same PR snag in August.
“The experience was absolutely traumatizing, very humiliating too,” Orban told Fox News during the Sunday appearance. “I’ve never been more confused in my life.”
She said she and her husband were premier customers of United. Now, she said in the Instagram video, they’re banned “off of United forever.”
According to United, however, letting the plane take off with the toddler unmasked was just too much of a risk.
“The health and safety of our employees and customers is our highest priority, which is why we have a multi-layered set of policies, including mandating that everyone onboard two and older wears a mask,” United said in a statement according to Heavy.
“These procedures are not only backed by guidance from the CDC and our partners at the Cleveland Clinic, but they’re also consistent across every major airline.
“We are investigating this specific incident and have made contact with the family. We also refunded their tickets and returned their car seat and bags.”
While it’s not just United, this is easily one of the most obnoxious examples of inflexible mask enforcement I’ve seen, coming from an airline that didn’t need this. There’s little evidence that, on the day kids turn 2, they suddenly become both a COVID transmission vector and an individual who’s mature enough to handle mask-wearing.
This was an unnecessary and stupid move that didn’t make passengers any safer, all from a company that’s on taxpayer life support and didn’t have a stellar reputation for customer service before that.
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