Agencies: 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 CEO 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 Golan said in a statement.
Golan and Chicago aviation attorney Thomas 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, Kentucky-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 2012 – transferring planes on their way to a vacation they’d 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.”