TRAVELLERS come in all different stripes. So it is generally not wise for the chief executive of a major airline to say something like this about a controversial presidential stance: “This policy and its impact on thousands of children is in deep conflict with [our] mission and we want no part of it.” But that was Oscar Munoz of United Airlines on President Donald Trump’s now-reversed policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. He is not the only airline boss to have attacked the policy. American Airlines issued a statement condemning the move as “not at all aligned” with its values. They, along with Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines, asked the government not to use their flights to transport children away from their parents. America’s other major airlines, Delta, also said that the family separations “do not align with Delta’s core values”.
The loud and explicit condemnation of the values of a serving president is unusual behaviour for an airline executive in America. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration swiftly hit back, with a Department of Homeland Security spokesman writing that “these airlines clearly do not understand our immigration laws.” Yet the row over the family-separation policy is not the first time that airlines have joined in attacks on Mr Trump and his supporters. Earlier this year, Delta and United cut ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA), a pro-gun lobby group, after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Delta and JetBlue, a low-cost carrier, have also been vocal in attacking tariffs proposed by Mr Trump’s administration on C-Series airliners made by Bombardier of Canada.
And airlines are not the only type of firm in the travel and hospitality business to have picked a fight with the White House. Later in June the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr Trump’s press secretary, to leave at the request of her staff, who did not like his policies. The president hit back on Twitter:
The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!
The growing number of these incidents suggests these are unusual times for public relations in the travel and hospitality business. One travel company after another has seen a greater advantage in speaking out against unpopular administration actions than in being seen by customers or employees as complicit. The biggest backlash came after Mr Trump signed his first ban on travellers to the United States from a group of majority-Muslim countries. Amid a taxi-driver boycott of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Uber, a ride-hailing app, made the mistake of dropping its surge pricing, leading hundreds of thousands of users to see the move as abetting Mr Trump’s travel ban and delete the Uber app from their phones. Meanwhile, companies like Lyft, a rival app to Uber, and Airbnb, a home-sharing platform, have shored up their cosmopolitan customer bases with publicity stunts and advertisements in solidarity with opponents of Mr Trump’s contentious policies.
But taking such a line does not always lead to greater popularity. After the incident involving Ms Sanders went viral on social media, an unrelated restaurant in Washington, DC with the same name was egged and its owner sent death threats by supporters of Mr Trump. Pro-gun activists have started a boycott against Delta and United for cutting links with the NRA (though there is little sign yet that has hurt the financial health of either firm). Although travellers tend to be a cosmopolitan bunch, whether it is best for a company to support or oppose Mr Trump’s policies depends on the demographics of its clientele. What is certain is that airlines, hotels and restaurants alike will find it more difficult to keep everyone happy in the future.