The United Scandal Probably Won’t Stop You From Flying United

Travelers pick airlines based on price and convenience.

"I am never flying United again," thousands of social media users proclaimed after a video showed a passenger bloodied and dragged off a flight the airline had overbooked. 

But despite the bad publicity and plummeting stock price, research shows consumers will likely eat their words.

A 2015 study by market researcher Mintel found that 56 percent of American consumers will stop buying from companies they believe to be unethical, and 27 percent will opt for a competitor, even if its service is of lower quality. But these sentiments are at odds with the reality of consumer behavior: Only 45 percent of consumers purchase from companies they consider ethical, Mintel found. 

"People like to think they would make the right decision, but there are other factors," said Fiona O'Donnell, Mintel's director of travel and leisure reports. "It's not just black and white."

Cost and convenience matter most to consumers, especially when it comes to air travel. Asked what would inspire them to pick one airline over another in a March 2016 Mintel study, the majority cited price, followed by scheduling. Only 37 percent cited customer service. An even slimmer margin, 25 percent, said their primary reason for picking a carrier was to avoid a different airline.

Air travel is already a widely loathed industry. Passengers are regularly subjected to shrinking seats and growing fees. Most flyers equate picking a specific carrier with choosing a specific poison. 

Consumers also tend to have short memories. "People will hold out and stay away from companies that have personally done them wrong," O'Donnell said. "But someone who travels once or twice a year, who saw the video on YouTube?" They may shrug off the incident to save a few bucks.

Despite the research, United has reasons to be concerned about its bottom line if lucrative, high-volume business customers are put off by the video. O'Donnell noted that the scandal was causing an uproar in the Asian community, as the passenger was of Asian descent. "I think they need to make some apologies," she said. 

In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz did just that and vowed to review the incident. "I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right," he said. The company had previously defended its actions.

Ed Zitron, founder of public relations firm EZ PR, believes the video will have a lasting impact because, unlike other brand scandals, there is extensive and visceral visuals attached to it. "They will get broadcast again and again," he said. "Any time any airline messes up, this will get referenced."

Even among those consumers who choose to make the boycott lifelong, there may be exceptions for pre-booked tickets with expensive cancellation fees and trips to locations where United is the primary carrier. The airline operates out of 212 airports in the U.S. alone and served 143 million passengers last year.

"I am never flying United again," tweeted Dan Amira, a writer on The Daily Show. "Unless they are the cheapest flight available, or have the most convenient times." 

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