United CEO Oscar Munoz finally apologises to passenger dragged off overbooked plane, branding treatment ‘horrific’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 3:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 2:18pm

United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz on Tuesday issued an apology for the treatment of a passenger dragged violently from one of its flights before take-off on Sunday, calling the confrontation “truly horrific” as the company faced a worldwide backlash for its handling of the incident.

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz said in a statement a day after he had defended the company in a memo that contained no apologies to the passenger.

Watch: Oscar Munoz: We are sorry

On Tuesday, as the storm of criticism continued, Munoz changed course. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

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Munoz said in the note to employees that he continues to be disturbed by the events Sunday night in Chicago.

Munoz was widely criticised for two statements Monday about the altercation in which he described Dr David Dao, the 69-year-old man taken off the plane, as “disruptive and belligerent.”

On Tuesday, Munoz said he was committed to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

He pledged to review the company’s policies for seeking volunteers to give up their seats, for handling oversold flights and for partnering with airport authorities and local law enforcement.

The risks to United from the uproar over the forced removal of the passenger in Chicago intensified on Tuesday. On Chinese social media, the incident attracted the attention of more than 480 million users on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

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United has about 20 per cent of total US-China airline traffic and has a partnership with Air China, the third-largest Chinese airline, according to analysts. It flies to more Chinese cities than other US airlines. Last year, United added non-stop flights from San Francisco to Hangzhou, its fifth destination in mainland China.

Dao, had refused to be “bumped” from the overbooked flight - an airline practice that has come under increased scrutiny since the incident.

“I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” Munoz said in his apology.

The comments were in stark contrast to the company’s initial response, in which it seemed to at least partially blame the passenger, inflaming worldwide outrage.

US media published an email Munoz sent earlier to employees, in which he said the passenger “defied” authorities and “compounded” the incident.

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” the CEO wrote.

Andy Holdsworth, a crisis management specialist at the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, said United’s initial response focused on the wrong thing.

“Whilst the passenger’s behaviour was not good, United have shown no compassion or concern for the man,” he said.

Munoz promised to release the results of the overbooking review by April 30.

But the public relations damage was done, with calls for boycotts and the US Department of Transportation promising a review of the airline’s actions.

Even the White House weighed in.

“Clearly, when you watch the video, it is troubling to see how that was handled,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.

An attorney for Dao’s family said he is in a Chicago hospital getting treated 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. Currently, they are focused only on Dr Dao’s medical care and treatment,” said Chicago attorney Stephen Golan.

A protest by the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice was expected later Tuesday in Chicago.

It was the second time in about two weeks that the airline found itself in the middle of a firestorm.

In late March, two teenagers were prevented from boarding a flight in Denver because they were wearing leggings.

The airline defended its action at the time by saying the girls were flying on passes that required them to abide by a dress code in return for free or discounted travel.

“They will need to be careful that these small incidents all start to add up and only remind us of the last incident as well as the current one,” Holdsworth said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse