The social media disaster is a relatively new kind of scar for United as it is for competing airlines that have confronted the viral posts of in-cabin conflicts.
It comes at a time when airlines have posted a steady stream of profits, a shift from years of boom-and-bust cycles that resulted in a decade of megamergers among them. The industry even won over Warren Buffett, who shunned airline investments for years after a bet on US Airways soured. Berkshire Hathaway is now among the top shareholders in each of the four major U.S. airlines.
The large mergers (United combined with Continental Airlines in 2010) and a plunge in fuel prices in mid-2014 has helped fuel record profits. U.S. passenger airlines are enjoying their longest streak of profitability in at least four decades, according to data from Airlines for America, an industry group. United Continental Holdings, the airline's parent, just posted its fifth-consecutive year of profits.
But profitability clearly doesn't prevent such disasters as Kokito's death. And the sheer size that airlines have grown to doesn't help them avoid such nightmares, said Samuel Engel, who heads the aviation group at consulting firm ICF.
"First, you have a workforce that is dispersed across the globe and often unsupervised. Second, you need to balance giving employees rules to follow while allowing them enough personal discretion to be human beings with their customers," he said. "It's like a game of telephone: The larger the company, the harder it is to project consistent culture and behavioral norms throughout the organization."
The airline has spent nearly a year trying to stop customer service problems from spiraling out of control like the Dao incident. This year, it launched a training program that aims to teach some 30,000 employees about safety, efficiency and caring. Called core4, the program includes role-playing exercises in which employees work out customer service problems and then discuss their approaches.
Some employees are skeptical and said the company's emphasis on making sure planes arrive on time reigns supreme.
"When there's an issue, management isn't interested in the 'why' of what happened," said a flight attendant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to media. "You get charged with the infraction and points are added to you file ... period. It's a sad reality now, maybe there's hope that it'll change."