Chicago aviation officers broke with standard operating procedures when they forcibly removed and dragged a man off a United flight after he refused to give up his seat last month, the head of the city’s Department of Aviation told a Senate panel on Thursday.
“As someone who has spent more than three decades in the aviation industry, that a passenger at one of our airports was injured in this way is deeply saddening and personally offensive,” said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, who apologized to the passenger, David Dao, and his family. “This is not how we do business and these actions will not be tolerated.”
Four aviation security officers were put on leave in connection with the April 9 incident. Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General is conducting a separate probe.
Evans’s comments came during testimony before the Senate subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security. It was the second of two Capitol Hill hearings this week examining the circumstances that led to Dao’s removal from the Louisville-bound flight.
“As the title of this hearing makes clear, this is about asking questions,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee. “But even more importantly, it’s about getting answers for the traveling public.”
Video footage of a bloodied Dao, screaming as he was taken off the plane, drew international condemnation and calls for a boycott of United. Dao suffered a concussion, broken nose and lost two teeth in the fracas. Late last month, he agreed to a confidential settlement with United.
“What happened to Dr. Dao is just simply unconscionable,” Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, said in his opening statement. “Talk to any passenger and they feel like they’re being treated like self-loading cargo, rather than as they should be, as very valued customers. They feel very taken advantage of and are getting sick and tired of it.”
Evans’s statements were the strongest to date from the agency that manages Chicago’s two airports and in sharp contrast to the account in an incident report released last month that said the officers used “minimal but necessary force” to remove Dao. That report, along with other documents, were released in response to a request by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. The report also said that Dao “responded repeatedly in an aggressive manner” when asked to leave the plane and swung his arms “up and down, fast and violently.”
But on Thursday, Evans said her review showed that the security officers involved in the incident “failed to provide Dr. Dao and his family with the respect we demand be given all of the traveling public flying in and out of Chicago.”
She added, “These actions are not condoned by the Chicago Department of Aviation.”
Evans said that the department has changed procedures to ensure that Chicago police, not aviation officers, will be the lead responders for disturbances onboard aircraft. The department also has amended procedures to align with United’s announcement that officers will no longer be allowed on planes unless it is a safety or security issue. Evans said they are working with other airlines to standardize that policy.
United chief executive Oscar Munoz, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing before the House Transportation Committee, did not appear. His absence was noted by Nelson, who told Scott Kirby, United’s president who did testify, that “I’m sorry you were sent here to be the sacrificial lamb.”
Kirby pushed back against lawmakers who said the industry has ignored its customers. Kirby said change fees, baggage charges and overbooking help keep fares low.
In response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Kirby said that aside from the incident involving Dao, things “were going really well” for the airline.
“United is running the best airline it has in its history,” he said.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) praised United for moving quickly to prevent a repeat of the dragging incident, which drew a level of outrage that was “unprecedented.”
“What you’ve done in 30 days is pretty impressive,” Inhofe said. “I don’t recall any time when [Congress has] been able to work as fast as you have in correcting a problem.”
In addition to the settlement with Dao, the airline also announced several steps it is taking to improve customer service.
But others on the panel disagreed. Democrats said the United incident and other problems demonstrate the need for a “Passenger Bill of Rights.”
“Airlines have replaced the customer service counter with the customer suffering counter,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D. Mass).
Added Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.): “I have a theory. If we require all executives to fly at the back of the plane the consumer experience would be better.”