United Airlines (UAL) has caught some flak on social media after a video surfaced of a middle aged male getting beaten and dragged off an airplane. The man, who appears to be Asian, reportedly identifies himself as a doctor who cannot leave the plane because he has patients to treat. Online reports, which remain unsubstantiated, give more color around the incident.
According to tweets, blog posts, forum comments and so on, the man is a doctor who was returning to see patients and said he needed to visit his patients tomorrow. United had overbooked the flight and needed four passengers to leave to accommodate United staff who were flying to work on other flights for the airline. Initially, United had offered up to $800 for volunteers to leave the flight, but had no takers. After those offers were not met, one passenger offered to leave if paid $1600 and was laughed at by United staff. It was at this point that United selected passengers randomly to leave. Initially a young couple went willingly, but when the doctor was singled out next he refused to exit, explaining that he had many patients waiting for him and could not go.
At this point security was called. Security men asked the passenger to leave, he again refused and was then forcibly removed. This is where the video gives us a brief insight into the incident. We also can see and hear the shock of onlookers, with one woman screaming “this is not right.”
Reports tell us that the man returned onto the plane a bit later, bleeding profusely and apparently acting incoherently. He kept saying that he needed to get home and was forcibly removed from the plane again, which was then vacated, cleaned of blood and reboarded. The entire incident resulted in a three-hour delay.
Ethics aside, UAL acted legally. Airline ticket purchases do not guarantee travel, and airlines can choose to refuse service or remove a person from an airplane for any reason. Recent controversies about women who were allegedly dressed “inappropriately” and were booted off airplanes are one example of this trend.
The ethics of the issue, however, are quite important. Customer perception of UAL’s actions will influence their purchasing decisions to a certain extent. Boycotts, however small, could impact the firm’s revenue. Legal responses, spending on PR responses, and legal defenses could all increase operating expenses. It also brings into question UAL’s operating procedures, since the $1600 one customer offered to leave was surely cheaper than what UAL has already paid on this incident, and it hasn’t ended yet.
As financial analysts, our job isn’t to side with UAL or the injured passenger but to see what cost this will have to the firm. The cost due to the delay and cleaning are too small to matter, and the costs in PR and legal spending are again too insignificant. However, this brings us to a financial concept known as “goodwill”.
Goodwill is an odd and difficult concept, but it essentially refers to that unique value the company has that no other company has thanks to its branding and market position. How much is the “United” brand worth? According to the firm’s last 10-Q, about $4.5 billion dollars. That number hasn’t changed in years, either; that same amount shows up in 2013 10-Qs. But this incident will impact the brand value of United and thus its goodwill. That, in turn, should influence our enterprise value (EV) of the firm which in turn will influence several valuation metrics used in pricing the firm.
How you want to discount UAL based on this incident is up to you, but the important point is the exercise itself. By recognizing this is a material event in UAL’s life, you are recognizing that companies often grossly mis-estimate the value of their brand and market position, which in turn creates mispricings that savvy investors can capitalize on.