Lawyers for David Dao, the Kentucky man who was violently removed from a flight for refusing to give up his seat earlier this month, said Thursday that they have reached a confidential settlement with United Airlines.
The agreement comes on the same day that United released the results of an internal investigation that found several mistakes were made before, during and after Dao was dragged off the April 9 flight, including calling in law enforcement to resolve an incident that was neither a safety nor security issue. The horrifying scene was caught on video and viewed by millions of people worldwide.
“We are pleased to report that United and Dr. Dao have reached an amicable resolution of the unfortunate incident that occurred aboard flight 3411. We look forward to implementing the improvements we have announced, which will put our customers at the center of everything we do,” United said in a statement.
“Dr. Dao has become the unintended champion for the adopting of changes which will certainly help improve the lives of literally millions of travelers,” said Thomas Demetrio, one of Dao’s two lawyers. “I sincerely hope that all other airlines make similar changes and follow United’s lead in helping to improve the passenger flying experience with an emphasis on empathy, patience, respect and dignity.”
Demetrio described the settlement, the terms of which will remain confidential, as “amicable.”
In its report, United says it had allowed internal policies to distract from the need to treat passengers with dignity and respect, and it outlines what the company intends to do to prevent a repeat of the incident.
“This is a turning point for all of us at United and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline,” chief executive Oscar Munoz said in a statement that accompanied the release of the report on the April 9 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “Our customers should be at the center of everything we do and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust.”
Under the airline’s new customer-first policy, travelers who voluntarily give up their seats will be eligible to receive up to $10,000 in travel certificates. United employees will be given new authority to find creative solutions to get bumped passengers to their final destinations — even if it means booking them on another airline or sending them to another airport.
Demetrio said United is taking the right steps and that he hopes other airlines will follow suit.
“Both Dr. Dao and I applaud United for promptly addressing the many issues that have plagued passenger satisfaction in the arena of airline customer service,” Demetrio said. “All of its policy changes announced today are passenger friendly and are simple, common-sense decisions on United’s part to help minimize the stress involved in the flying experience. Dr. Dao is proud, despite his ordeal, to have played a role in spearheading these announced changes. And going forward, he hopes United takes the lead in inspiring the entire airline industry to supply passengers the dignity, respect and fairness we all deserve.”
Demetrio said Dao suffered a concussion, broken nose and two missing teeth, among other injuries. Four aviation security officers involved in the incident have been placed on leave while the investigation continues.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Munoz called the incident “a system failure across the board.” He said outdated policies and procedures, which focused more on operations and logistics than customers, put all those involved in “impossible situations.”
When asked about the conduct of the officers involved in the violent removal of Dao from the plane, Munoz said that, yes, he thought it was wrong. But he took responsibility for the situation, saying: “Did I believe what law enforcement folks did was wrong? Yeah. But once again, it was I and we who put them in that situation.”
The 11-page report lays out how a series of unrelated events came together and created the situation.
“United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened,” reads the report’s introduction. “The intention of this report is to communicate concrete and meaningful actions that will avoid putting our customers, employees and partners in impossible situations.”
The report lays out four ways in which United says it failed both its passengers and employees. In addition to unnecessarily summoning law enforcement, the airline should not have tried to find space on the flight for crew members at the last minute. It also should have offered more compensation or more transportation options to entice customers to give up their seats voluntarily, but it acknowledged that agents did not have the authority to make such decisions. Finally, the report said the airline has not provided regular training for employees on how to deal with “denied boarding situations.”
“Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: Our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what’s right,” Munoz said.
The report, which outlines 10 changes the airline is making to prevent a repeat of the incident, is the most detailed account yet of the events that led to Dao’s removal from Flight 3411.
According to the report, Flight 3411, scheduled to leave Chicago at 5:40 p.m. for Louisville, was overbooked by one seat. After no volunteers came forward, the airline bumped a passenger who had not yet received a seating assignment. That person received a check as compensation and was booked on another United flight, the report said. The remaining passengers were allowed to board.
At the same time, however, another United flight to Louisville that had been scheduled to depart at 2:55 p.m. was delayed because of mechanical difficulties. The airline needed to get four crew members who had been booked on that earlier flight to Louisville on Sunday night in order to prevent at least one flight — and possibly several others — from being canceled.
And so the crew members were rebooked on Flight 3411. As a result, the airline needed four of the 70 passengers aboard to give up their seats. The gate agent offered $800 in travel credits plus the cost of meals and a hotel stay. When no one came forward, the agent then followed United’s procedure for involuntarily bumping passengers. A United supervisor boarded the plane and told a couple they would have to leave. The couple left. The supervisor then told Dao and his wife they would have to leave. Dao refused. After receiving multiple refusals, United officials told Dao they would call authorities if he continued to protest. At this point, another passenger volunteered to leave the plane in exchange for $1,000 in compensation. But United officials still needed a fourth seat. Chicago Department of Aviation officers, who have “historically been effective in getting customers to voluntarily comply,” then arrived on the scene, the report said. They, too, were unsuccessful in persuading Dao to leave.
According to the report, the United supervisor left the aircraft to call a manager. It was at that point that Dao, the report said, “was physically removed from the aircraft” by the aviation security officers.
That moment, captured on video by other passengers aboard the flight, showed Dao yelling as he was pulled from his seat and then dragged down the aisle of the plane.
But United is promising change.
In addition to increasing the compensation for passengers who voluntarily give up their seats, the airline will create an automated system to identify passengers willing to give up their seats and allow them to set the level of compensation they would be willing to accept. Starting in August, the airline also will offer additional training for front-line staff and later this year will roll out an app that will allow employees to immediately compensate customers when a service issue arises. It also will create a “customer solutions team” charged with finding ways to get displaced passengers where they need to go.
Even though United officials say only a small percentage of passengers are involuntarily bumped from the airline’s flights, they said they will reduce overbooking on those flights on which volunteers are less likely to come forward. Overbooking is not illegal, but it has drawn new scrutiny from members of Congress following the airline’s treatment of Dao.
United’s offer of $10,000 in flight certificates brings it in line with Delta, which announced earlier this month that it was boosting the maximum amount of compensation it would offer passengers. Prior to this most recent change, United agents could offer up to $500, and supervisors could approve up to $1,500 in travel certificates and $1,350 cash.
It’s unclear whether United’s actions will be enough to satisfy lawmakers, who are already demanding changes to the way airlines treat customers. Among the provisions of a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday is one that would require the secretary of transportation to reexamine airlines’ practice of overbooking to determine whether limits should be placed on how many seats an airline can sell.
United had already announced some new procedures and changes. Munoz said the airline will limit the use of law enforcement to “safety and security issues only.” He also announced that the airline will no longer bump passengers once they have boarded their flight unless it involves a safety or security issue.
The report noted that after being removed from the plane, Dao returned and, according to video and passenger accounts, his face was bloodied. Incident reports released by the Chicago Department of Aviation this week said Dao became increasingly combative and began swinging his arms with his fists closed after one of the officers tried to grab him. It says the officer was able to pull Dao up from his seat and toward the aisle, but then lost his grip because Dao kept fighting. The police report said Dao was removed from the plane with “minimal but necessary force.”
Munoz, however, again apologized for the events and took responsibility.
“Every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect,” he said. “Two weeks ago, we failed to meet that standard and we profoundly apologize.”
An earlier version of this post misstated the number of failures that United officials identified as part of their investigation. The airline found four instances of failure.