After two days of conflicting explanations, falling stock prices and worldwide outrage, United Airlines entered full mea culpa mode Tuesday, with its chief executive apologizing for the “horrific event” in which a passenger was dragged from a plane screaming after refusing a last-minute request to give up his seat to make room for a crew member.
“It is never too late to do the right thing,” United chief executive Oscar Munoz said in a statement. “I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
Munoz ordered a review of the airline’s policies on giving seats to employees and overbooking and promised a public report by April 30.
“I continue to be disturbed by what happened,” Munoz said. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
Munoz’s statement was the culmination of two days of attempts by the airline to contain what exploded into a public-relations crisis. Since videos of the incident first surfaced Sunday on Twitter, the airline’s stock price has plummeted and there have been worldwide calls to boycott the carrier.
At least one person — a security officer caught on video as he and others removed the man from the flight — has been placed on paid administrative leave while the incident is under review.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the passenger, David Dao, said Tuesday that he remains hospitalized in Chicago, undergoing treatment for his injuries.
“The family of Dr. Dao wants the world to know that they are very appreciative of the outpouring of prayers, concern and support they have received,” Chicago attorney Stephen L. Golan said in a statement.
Golan and Chicago aviation attorney Thomas A. Demetrio are representing the family. The attorneys said the family is focused on Dao’s treatment and recovery and would not be making any further statements.
Videos — shot by passengers aboard the Louisville-bound flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that show Dao screaming as he is dragged down the aisle of the plane and again a few minutes later when he returns to the plane, his face bloody — have drawn widespread condemnation.
While there have been several high-profile incidents involving in-flight disputes recently, this one resonated with travelers increasingly frustrated with the flying experience.
Despite reports that say more flights are on time and that airlines are losing fewer bags, the incident fueled the perception that flying has become a nightmare and that air travel has become something travelers endure rather than enjoy.
“The seats are getting smaller, what used to come standard with a ticket — that’s all being segmented now,” said Michelle Brignone, a legal analyst with FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit passenger advocacy group. “Personal space is shrinking at a time when Americans are getting bigger.”
And airline mergers mean that consumers have fewer choices when it comes to flying.
“In a market economy, you’re supposed to be able to vote with your wallet. But because three or four airlines control most of the seats, you can’t,” Brignone said.
United’s PR missteps also fueled the perception that airlines simply don’t care about their passengers, experts said.
“I think this is one of the most shocking missteps I’ve ever seen,” said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com. “I usually give the airlines a lot of leeway. It’s not an easy business, but this was just stupid.”
For Ghary Gappelberg, a physician in Massachusetts, Sunday’s incident brought back memories of the time United kicked his fiancee off a plane so a pilot could take her seat.
With Gappelberg’s 11-year-old son in tow, the couple boarded at San Francisco International Airport in 2013 — transferring planes on their way to a vacation they had been planning for months.
The couple resisted for over an hour, Gappelberg said, until security finally arrived and “threatened to arrest her” — at which point his fiancee relented and left the plane, catching up with her family the next day.
In the five years since, the family has avoided flying United whenever possible, Gappelberg said.
While Munoz has promised an investigation into Sunday’s incident, others have called for government action.
Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have sent letters to Munoz, as well as Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, about the incident.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has requested hearings on the matter, and Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) said United Airlines and the Chicago Department of Aviation should be “ashamed and embarrassed.”
Illinois Reps. Rodney Davis (R) and Daniel Lipinski (D) also expressed outrage.
“United failed in this instance, without a doubt,” Lipinski said. “Many of us who fly frequently have experienced overbooking situations, but obviously how it was handled in this circumstance was unacceptable, and no passenger should ever be put through what this individual was.”
The Transportation Department also is looking into whether United followed proper procedures.
During the afternoon briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the videos were “troubling” but dismissed calls for a federal investigation into what he said should be “a very simple local matter.”
The incident may have indeed remained a local matter, had it not been for passengers who captured the scene of a man being dragged off the flight.
Tyler Bridges told The Washington Post that the mood on the jet quickly soured when passengers were told that some of them would be forced to leave.
Bridges and his wife were on the last leg of a journey home from Japan, he said. Before takeoff, an airline supervisor brusquely announced: “This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”
And since no passenger was willing, United chose for them.
A young couple “begrudgingly got up and left,” Bridges recalled.
The third person also complied. But when the crew approached the man, he refused.
“He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight,’ ” Bridges said. “ ‘I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning.’ ”
Security was called.
On the video, passengers are heard saying, “This is horrible” and “What are you doing? This is wrong,” and by Monday, United had a full-scale PR crisis on its hands.
The incident also has made headlines in China, where tens of millions of people have read or shared reports that the passenger claimed he was targeted because he was Chinese. By late afternoon on Tuesday, the topic had attracted 160 million readers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and 97,000 comments. Petitions to boycott United Airlines were also going viral on WeChat, a popular messaging service.
On Tuesday, United spokesman Charles Hobart sought to clarify earlier reports saying that the flight was not overbooked but that the airline made the decision late into the boarding process that it needed four seats to accommodate crew members from Republic Airlines. Such an instance is rare, he added, but happens on occasion.
Officials offered various incentives, but no passengers came forward, he said.
When no volunteers came forward, Hobart said officials used a number of factors, including frequent-flier status, price paid for the ticket and ease of rebooking, to determine who would have to leave. Hobart said the passengers who were removed were compensated and given rebooking options, but he declined to go into detail.
Times are good for airlines. Profits are up, complaints are down and record numbers of people are flying, according to federal data. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported last month that 929 million people flew in 2016, an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous record-setting year, 2015.
BTS statistics also show that the United States’ largest airlines — including United — have improved on several measures of quality. In 2016, the number of passengers bumped from their flights hit its lowest annual rate since 1995, the most recent year for which DOT records are available. According to BTS, the bumping rate was 0.62 per 10,000 passengers.
Even so, the growing number of passengers can also mean more tension in the air and on the ground. And social media have given passengers a powerful tool by which they can air their grievances.
“I don’t think incidents of bad behavior are increasing. You’re just seeing it in a way you haven’t before,” said Brignone, of FlyersRights.org.
Before people might complain to friend or family about a bad experience but that’s as far as it went, she said.
“It was all off-line,” she added. But with the advent of smartphones and apps like Twitter and Facebook, people “have a very public outlet to complain on.”
“While it may be embarrassing to airlines, it shows things that in the past would have gone unnoticed,” she said.
That was the case for Martin Rubbiolo, an electrical engineer in Colorado. When he read about the viral videos, he flashed back to 2005 — when he said United bumped him from a flight to an important meeting with his boss.
He shared a letter he wrote the airline afterwards — “I was wondering what, if anything, will you do to right this wrong.” It had no effect, he said, and he abandoned United.
Social media also provides airlines instant feedback for airlines to recalibrate their message as United has continued to do since news of the incident first broke.
Many thought early statements from the airline missed the mark, apologizing for having to “re-accommodate these customers.” That public apology, however, was undercut after CNBC reported that a leaked memo to employees seemed to blame the passenger for becoming, “more and more disruptive and belligerent.”
But perhaps social media is helping airlines fine tune their message.
Take the closing line of Munoz’s recent statement: “I promise you we will do better.”
Luz Lazo, Martine Powers and Simon Denyer contributed to this report.