A star-studded audience packing Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday evening may have served United Airlines with a fresh reminder of just how difficult the company will find it to move on from a PR disaster that has been following it from sea to shining sea.
Radio City Music Hall was full to capacity with 6,000 film buffs and celebrities eager to catch the world premiere of “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives,” a biopic that opened the 16th Tribeca Film Festival about the legendary record mogul who was credited with discovering and molding the career of the late Whitney Houston.
There were performances after the screening by Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson (singing a Whitney Houston medley), Dionne Warwick, Kenny G and “Earth Wind and Fire.” Ivana Trump, who was in the audience, sat through some pointed references to her former husband, President Donald Trump, by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
But the first big collective cultural gasp of the evening came before the screening, when United Airlines
ran this sleek and carefully crafted commercial about the airline’s luxurious Polaris Business Class. The voiceover went thus: “P is for permission to indulge. O is for out of this world. L is for loving the seasonal cuisine. A is for access to everything, including the aisle. R is for reclining and tailor-made bedding. And I must be dreaming. And S? So long jet lag. Polaris from United.”
There was a moment of silence as the word United appeared on the giant screen, but it was soon followed by laughter. “Too soon!” one patron shouted out. (United did not respond to request for comment.)
It’s a painful reminder of how United’s PR disaster, barely more than two weeks old, won’t go away. On April 9, another United video captured got a very different response. A 69-year-old doctor, David Dao, was forcibly removed from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport because the flight was overbooked. (United did not respond to request for comment Thursday.)
His face bloodied, the man was dragged up the aisle of the airplane by a airport security officer after he refused to get off the plane. (The airport police officer has since reportedly been placed on leave, and United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, apologized and launched an investigation into the incident.)
Since the incident, the company’s consumer perception levels dropped to their lowest levels in 10 years, according to YouGov BrandIndex, consumer perception research firm. United Airlines’ score was 3 on April 8, a relatively benign score before the videos of the skirmish on the now-infamous flight went viral. As of April 14, the score was minus 40. On April 16, Dao’s lawyer, Thomas Demetrio, held a press conference that was streamed live on several networks excoriating United. (Munoz apologized again.)
Opening the Tribeca Film Festival, co-founded by Robert DeNiro in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as a way to rejuvenate downtown New York, Governor Cuomo told the crowd at Radio City Music Hall, “We’ve been working very hard to develop that industry and that art form in New York and Tribeca has been a great help to us as we’ve been doing that and I think at this time, in this country, when so many are trying to stifle creativity and individuality, it reinforces New York is about acceptance and diversity and creativity.”