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Warren Buffett criticizes United, its CEO over dragging incident

Warren Buffett says United Airlines bungled the case of the passenger dragged off a plane last month, and he is criticizing the CEO's handling of the incident. | AP Photo

NEW YORK — Warren Buffett said Monday that United Airlines bungled the case of the passenger dragged off a plane last month, and he is criticizing the CEO’s handling of the incident.

Buffett also said airplanes “may become like cattle cars,” but that’s because a significant number of passengers will put up with crowding in exchange for cheaper fares.

Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is a major shareholder of United and other big U.S. airlines, said the recent spotlight on poor customer service in the airline industry doesn’t change his investment strategy.


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According to FactSet, Berkshire Hathaway is UAL’s largest shareholder with a more than 9 percent stake. Berkshire is also the top shareholder at Delta, No. 2 at Southwest and No. 3 at American.

The UAL stake is worth nearly $2.2 billion at the midday share price of $75.55.

The billionaire financier made the comments in an interview with CNBC.

Buffett said the bloody removal of a 69-year-old passenger from a United Express plane in Chicago was obviously “a terrible mistake.” He criticized United Continental Holdings Inc. CEO Oscar Munoz, who first gave a vague response, then defended his employees and blamed the passenger.

“I kind of wonder whether Oscar had actually seen that (video) when he made the response,” Buffett said. “If so, it was a bigger mistake by far.”

Buffett said a CEO’s natural tendency is to first defend his employees, but that should not have been the case if Munoz had seen the video. The video was widely viewed on social media before Munoz’s comments, but United did not immediately respond when asked when Munoz first saw it.

Munoz has apologized many times since then, including before a congressional committee last week.

Buffett said “it’s bad” when airline executives get hauled before Congress, but said the events did not change the strategy behind his investments in the airlines.

The financier said air travel has become “unbelievably safe” and that full planes are making the airlines profitable — even if that causes “a fair amount of discomfort.”

“They may become like cattle cars, but . . . a significant percentage would rather be treated that way and fly for $X than have far more legroom, two abreast, all kinds of things, and travel for $X plus 25 percent,” he said.

High average occupancy has kept prices from rising, Buffett said. He also was skeptical about Congress imposing new regulations on the airlines, saying that would push fares higher.