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A man dragged down an aisle. An image dragged through the mud.

Overbooking is a common trend for businesses in the travel industry. In the pursuit of maximizing capacities, hotels and airlines anticipate “no-shows,” and use complex algorithms to account for any shortfalls.

United Airlines is not immune to the commonly used practice. However, when faced with resistance, the famed airline launched a different type of “trend.”

Social media was abuzz on Sunday evening when footage of a man being forcibly removed from United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. The events leading up to it is a lesson for any business on how to handle a problem created by their own policy.

The drama was put into motion when passengers at the gate were told that their flight was overbooked. To entice one of them to give up their seat, they offered $400 and a hotel stay to wait for a flight the next day. No one took them up on their offer.

After being allowed to board the flight, passengers were informed by United that four stand-by employees needed to be in Louisville for a Monday flight. Doubling the monetary reward still failed to entire travelers.

Seemingly out of options, a manager announced a computer “lottery” to select four people to leave the flight. A couple was selected and immediately deplaned. The third man chosen refused.

That’s when many cell phone cameras began documenting what would become a public relations nightmare for United. Footage taken by “shocked and upset” passengers showed Elizabethtown doctor David Dao, his face bloodied, literally dragged kicking and screaming by a security officer.

The now-viral incident got the attention of the Chicago Department of Aviation who claimed that it was not in accordance with standard operating procedures and the actions of the officer who has been since placed on leave.

The damage done to United Airlines is still unknown, as is the possibility or probability of lawsuits against the company.

One of the most valuable assets a business has is its image. While not all crises can be anticipated, responses to sudden problems should be resolved by assessing the costs versus the risk, particularly when most customers are always carrying a camera.

Whether more measured approaches such as sweetening the pot would have been more effective, United now finds themselves with a controversy that has boiled over.

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