Another day, another public relations disaster for United Airlines. America’s third biggest carrier is being slammed online for violently dragging a passenger – a 69-year-old Asian man, believed to be a doctor – off an overbooked flight. This comes just weeks after the company, whose slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies”, was ridiculed for refusing to allow two teenage girls to board a flight because they were wearing leggings. Chief executive Oscar Munoz added more fuel to the fire with his response, which didn’t mention the use of force. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” he said in a statement. But Mr Munoz also sent an email to employees calling the passenger, who was pictured with a bloodied face, “disruptive and belligerent”. The Twitterverse quickly responded. United, which made $2.3bn (£1.85bn) in profit last year, isn’t alone in the PR disasters club. Delta Airlines has cancelled thousands of flights since Wednesday because of severe weather. It’s not the first time. Delta chief executive Ed Bastian was forced to apologise after thousands of flights were delayed and cancelled due to a computer bug and power failure last August. In February, Sikh-American actor Waris Ahluwalia was barred from boarding an Aeromexico flight because he refused to remove his turban during a security check. The airline later apologised. And Southwest Airlines flew into a PR storm in 2010 after US filmmaker Kevin Smith was kicked off a flight after being told he was too big to fly. He ended his boycott of the airline six years later. So how could United have handled the situation better? John Bailey is a specialist in crisis communications and has handled public relations for many of the aviation industry’s biggest players, including Malaysia Airlines following the disappearance of MH370. “Any airline which allows its employees the discretion to take this kind of heavy-handed action against a paying customer is asking for trouble,” he says. “Every other passenger on that aircraft was a potential citizen journalist. What’s astonishing is that United responded so poorly to an absolutely predictable reputational risk. “But businesses generally are struggling to adapt to the new communications landscape. Research suggests that it takes companies an average of 21 hours to issue meaningful external communications in a crisis situation, leaving them open to ‘trial by Twitter’.” Wes Finley, a US marketer working at Facebook, said the United video went viral so quickly because “everyone could relate to the frustration the doctor felt at being involuntarily booted”. “Last week’s widespread cancellations by Delta also left a lot of people with a hostile attitude to airline travel,” he adds.