United CEO calls dragging incident ‘a watershed moment’

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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is likely to face questions from shareholders Wednesday about the rough removal of a passenger from a flight, an incident that sparked weeks of bad publicity. | AP file photo

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz told shareholders Wednesday that the dragging of a passenger off a plane was “a watershed moment.”

Munoz has apologized repeatedly for the April 9 incident in which passenger David Dao was injured by Chicago airport security officers who were called to remove him from an overbooked United Express plane. The airline reached an undisclosed settlement with Dao.

The incident sparked weeks of bad publicity for the Chicago-based airline.

“We rally, we pivot — it’s a watershed moment to move forward,” Munoz told shareholders Wednesday at the company’s annual meeting at United’s headquarters in Willis Tower.

“There are breakages sometimes,” he said. “Our job is to continue to put our customers at the center of what we do.”

Chicago city employees will no longer help remove passengers from an airplane except in cases of a medical emergency or when a crime has been committed. The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved an ordinance formalizing the policy change initiated by Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans the day after Dao was dragged from the plane.

Munoz referred to the incident at least half a dozen times during the hourlong meeting, while also telling shareholders that focusing on that one incident misses the broader picture — that 2016 was the carrier’s best operational record in history.

“2017 is already off to an incredible start,” he said.

But talking to reporters a little later, Munoz said the Dao incident should never be forgotten.

“I don’t ever want that issue to be gone and behind us,” he said. “It always has to be a constant reminder of what we can . . . do better on.”

Crowds of protesters gathered outside Willis Tower. Airport employees, including baggage handlers, janitors and security officers, want higher wages. About 30 were taken into custody and cited after blocking traffic and refusing police orders to move.

Most of the questions during the meeting’s question-and-answer session with Munoz came from employees, mostly working for United contractors. Many were concerned about low wages.

“I need to get the facts,” Munoz told reporters. “When someone comes in the room and someone has a small . . . set of facts, there’s a broader story.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman, AP

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