United’s embattled chief executive, Oscar Munoz, appeared on national TV on Wednesday and apologized to a Kentucky man who was dragged off his flight Sunday after refusing a last-minute request to give up his seat to a crew member.
“This is not who our family at United is,” Munoz said in his first televised remarks since the video surfaced. “You saw us at a bad moment. This can never, will never happen again on a United flight.”
When asked if the passenger, David Dao, was at fault for the actions that led to his removal from the plane as it sat on the runway Sunday at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Munoz said, simply: “No, he cannot be. He was a paying passenger sitting in his seat on our aircraft. No one should be treated that way.”
After days of struggling to contain a PR crisis that has badly tarnished its image and sent its stock price tumbling, officials at the airline appeared to finally settle on a strategy to calm the furor. In addition to Munoz’s televised apology the airline also announced it will refund fares to all the passengers who were aboard Flight 3411.
Also Wednesday, two more officers involved in Dao’s removal from the plane have been placed on leave. Officials announced Monday that one officer had been placed on paid administrative leave. The Chicago Department of Aviation had already placed one officer on leave Monday, pending an investigation.
Even so, United’s ordeal may not be over.
Attorneys for Dao filed an emergency bill of discovery in Cook County Circuit Court requesting that the court order that United and the City of Chicago preserve items linked to Sunday’s incident, including video footage of the boarding process, a passenger list and cockpit voice recordings from the flight. A spokeswoman for the firms representing Dao said they will offer more detail on the filing at a Thursday news conference.
The Chicago City Council has also scheduled a public hearing on the matter on Thursday.
Munoz’s appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” was the first time the chief executive had spoken publicly about the incident, which has led to a massive backlash against the airline. The airline’s stock price has dropped, and there have been calls for boycotts from as far away as China, where the story has stirred outrage because Dao is Asian. United officials said that race was in no way a consideration when they chose who would be removed from a flight.
In the GMA interview, a contrite Munoz apologized to Dao, his family and the other passengers aboard the plane.
He also expressed regret for initial statements in the days following the incident that appeared to blame Dao for the incident. In a letter to employees that was leaked to CNBC, Munoz said Dao was “belligerent.”
“My initial words fell short of truly expressing what I was feeling,” he said. “That is something that I’ve learned from.”
In pledging a full investigation into the matter, Munoz also hinted that there will be changes in the way local law enforcement deals with passengers aboard United flights. When Dao refused to leave the flight voluntarily, police were called to remove him.
“The use of law enforcement aboard an aircraft has to be looked at very carefully,” Munoz said. “That is a policy that we absolutely have to look at.”
Munoz said United will release the results of its internal investigation by April 30.
Videos shot by passengers aboard the Louisville-bound flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport 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. Dao’s face is bloody and his clothing mussed. When asked his reaction to seeing the footage, Munoz said “shame” was among the words that came to mind.
On Tuesday, Dao’s attorneys said he was in a Chicago-area hospital 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 lawyer Stephen L. Golan said in a statement.
The incident has raised hopes among passenger advocate groups such as FlyersRights.org that Congress may act on reforms to make air travel more consumer friendly.
The video has caught the attention of members of Congress, many of whom are frequent flyers. Nearly a dozen members of Congress have sent letters to United, officials at O’Hare and the U.S. Department of Transportation demanding an explanation for why Dao was forcibly removed from the plane. DOT officials said its office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings is reviewing the matter. They noted that the flight was operated by one of United’s regional partners, Republic Airlines.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced he is seeking support for the Customers Not Cargo Act, which would prohibit airlines from forcibly removing passengers after they have already boarded the plane because of overbooking or airline staff seeking to fly as passengers.
“We were all shocked and outraged this week when United Airlines forcibly and brutally removed Dr. David Dao from Flight 3411,” Van Hollen wrote to his colleagues. “ … we should act immediately to ensure that airlines cannot force passengers who have already boarded to leave the plane to free up seats for others. Instead, they must provide sufficient incentives to encourage passengers to voluntarily deplane.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) also joined the fray, saying on CNN that he has asked the Trump administration to prevent airlines from overbooking flights until new guidelines are put into place.
“This is unacceptable — to have somebody pay for a ticket, reserve a seat, be seated and dragged off the plane physically by law enforcement officers by the direction of United, it’s outrageous,” Christie told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on “New Day.” “That’s why I’ve asked the Trump administration to stop overbooking until we set rules how the airlines can conduct themselves.”
But the Trump administration appears reluctant to get involved. During a briefing on Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer said the video was “troubling” but dismissed calls for a federal investigation into what he said should be “a very local matter.”
The situation has focused attention on airlines’ practice of overbooking, in which it sells more tickets than seats to compensate for travelers who don’t show up for their flights. Such a practice is not illegal but can lead to conflict if there is a mismatch between passengers and seats.
A United spokesman clarified earlier statements to say that the flight that Dao was booked on was not overbooked. In reality, the airline wanted the seats for four crew members who needed to get to Louisville by Monday so they could staff another flight the next morning.
This is the second time in less than a month that United has been called out for its treatment of passengers. Late last month, a traveler at Denver International Airport witnessed an exchange in which it appeared that an agent was barring two teenage girls from boarding because they were wearing leggings. The traveler tweeted about the incident, which set off a firestorm in the Twitterverse. It turned out that the girls were traveling on company passes, which require them to abide by United’s dress code. But the airline’s delayed response only fueled the idea that it didn’t care about its customers.
In the wake of the two incidents, some have called for Munoz to step down from the job he has held since September 2015. But Munoz said he will remain United’s chief.
Said Munoz: “I was hired to make United better and we’ve been doing that and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”