After two days of conflicting explanations, falling stock prices and worldwide outrage, United Airlines entered mea culpa mode Tuesday afternoon when its chief executive announced an internal investigation into an incident involving a man who was violently removed from a plane so a crew member could have his seat.
“I continue to be disturbed by what happened,” United chief executive Oscar Munoz said in a statement. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
“We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again,” Munoz said, promising a public report by April 30 on a review into United’s partnerships with law enforcement, its policies on giving seats to employees and overbooking.
The statement was the latest attempt from the airline to defuse a public relations crisis, which began when a now-suspended security officer yanked a man out of his seat Sunday, causing the man’s face to hit an arm rest, and then dragged him across the aisle floor back to the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Earlier Tuesday, a United spokesman backed off the company’s initial claims that the flight was “overbooked” — rather than disrupted at the last minute to transport off-duty crew.
Munoz’s Tuesday afternoon apology came after a letter he sent to United employees became public. In it, he defended the flight crew’s behavior on the Louisville-bound plane.
And it came as international outrage sent United’s stock price falling, as disturbing videos of the incident went viral worldwide.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the videos “troubling” Tuesday but dismissed calls for a federal investigation into what he said should be “a very simple local matter.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation also said it was looking into the matter.
In China, where United bills itself as a top carrier, tens of millions of people have read or shared a report that the passenger claimed he was targeted for being Chinese. Many there are now echoing calls in the United States for a boycott.
Flight 3411 had finished boarding Sunday evening, according to a summary attached to Munoz’s letter to United employees, when “gate agents were approached by crew members” who needed seats.
Passengers were initially offered money if they gave up their seats, but no one volunteered.
If the off-duty crew had not been able to get to Louisville that night, a United spokesman told the Louisville Courier-Journal, another flight might have been canceled. So the airline invoked what it describes as its “involuntary denial of boarding process.”
Which is where the trouble started.
When passengers expecting to take off for Louisville learned that some of them would be forced to leave, the mood on the jet quickly soured, Tyler Bridges told The Washington Post.
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 evictee complied, too.
But when the crew approached what Chicago police told NBC was a 69-year-old Asian man in a window seat, 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.’”
United said crew members apologetically told the man to leave, several times, “and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.”
“He wasn’t cussing, but he was yelling and he was upset,” Bridges said. “He said, more or less, ‘I’m being selected because I’m Chinese.’” (Another witness on the plane said the man was originally from Vietnam, according to the BBC.)
So the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare.
An officer boarded. Then a second and a third.
By then, Bridges and another passenger were taking video on their cellphones — footage that would soon be seen by millions.
As officers leaned over the lone holdout in a window seat, passengers across the aisle sympathized with him.
“Can’t they rent a car for the pilots?” a woman asks in the videos.
Out of frame, the man suddenly screams.
One of the officers quickly reaches across two empty seats, yanks him up and pulls him into the aisle.
“My God!” someone yells — not for the first time.
The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police.
“It looked like it knocked him out,” Bridges said. “His nose was bloody.”
In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor.
Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.
“Like a rag doll,” as one witness wrote on Twitter.
“What are you doing?” someone asks in the video, as the man slides past. “No! This is wrong.”
When the man was gone and all four seats were free, Bridges said, the four stranded crew members boarded and took them.
They were jeered, he recalled: “People were saying you should be ashamed to work for this company.”
Had the plane left then, that might still have been enough to spark the fury that would come when Bridge’s video went public.
But a few minutes later, the man ran back onto the plane.
“He continued to resist,” United wrote in its summary, “running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.”
In Bridge’s second video, the man appears frantic. His clothes are still mussed from the dragging, his mouth bloody.
“I have to go home,” he keeps saying. “I have to go home.”
A group of high school students stood up and left the plane at that point, Bridges said. “They don’t need to see this anymore,” their escort explained to other passengers.
The airline eventually cleared everyone from the plane and did not let them back on until the man was removed a second time — in a stretcher.
Bridges and his wife got home to Louisville a few hours later that night.
Monday, while the injured man’s identity was still unclear, videos from the plane began circulating among millions of people.
The incident dominated news shows and social media and travelers began live-Tweeting overbooking incidents.
Videos tagged “United Related” (ironically or not) became basically the only thing visible on Reddit’s ultra-popular videos sub-forum.
United lost hundreds of millions of dollars in market capital Tuesday, according to MarketWatch.
Almost as bad as the incident, for some, was the company’s flailing attempts to respond to it.
“How to make a PR crisis a total disaster,” was how CNN put it in a headline.
United’s brief response to the incident Sunday night — Flight 3411 was “overbooked” and police were called after a man “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily” — disintegrated in a storm of derision.
Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary joined the fray when it noted a volunteer “does something without being forced to do it.”
The chief executive’s first attempt at a public apology, Monday, did not fare any better. He apologized not for the man’s treatment, but “for having to re-accommodate these customers” — phrasing that created a meme-storm of mockery.
Chicago police were also criticized for an early statement, as reported by NBC, claiming the injured man “fell.” By Monday afternoon, the Chicago Department of Aviation — a different agency — said it had placed an officer in the video on leave pending an investigation.
“The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department,” the agency said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Karen E. Pride, a spokeswoman for the department declined to answer questions about how the incident unfolded or the ongoing investigation. “All that I can say right now is that one officer is on paid administrative leave and that the matter is under review.”
Then came Munoz’s company letter, in which he called the crew’s conduct on the plane as “established procedures.”
“I deeply regret this situation arose,” Munoz wrote, according to the Associated Press. But “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
In his third attempt to address the spiraling crisis, Munoz offered no more defenses:
The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.
I promise you we will do better.
Luz Lazo contributed to this report.