WASHINGTON — Hauled before a congressional committee, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologized several times on Tuesday for having a passenger dragged off a flight at O’Hare Airport, calling the public relations disaster “a mistake of epic proportions in hindsight.”
Actually it was a series of dreadful missteps by United and the Chicago Aviation Police that landed Munoz and United President Scott Kirby before the entire House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday, at a hearing that devolved to a litany of consumer gripes from venting lawmakers about baggage and change fees and crammed seats on their own flights.
After David Dao refused on April 9 to voluntarily give up his seat for a United crew member on his Louisvillle-bound flight, he was bloodied and injured as the aviation cops removed him from the plane, with the episode caught on videos shot by several passengers.
Executives from other airlines — Alaska, American and Southwest — also were at the witness table.
United’s goofs will potentially impact other airlines when it comes to Congress, where lawmakers, in the wake of Dao, have pending a series of consumer-friendly proposals.
As Transportation Committee chair, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., told the airline executives, “If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service the next time this committee meets to address the issue, I can assure you won’t like the outcome.”
At the hearing, triggered by the Dao debacle, Munoz and Kirby were able to avoid making their situation worse in part because:
• Knowing that a few wrong words can provoke another uproar, the dour Munoz and Kirby spoke as little as possible, except for Munoz’s multiple apologies.
United botched its initial response to the Dao incident, not mentioning Dao in its first statement. Munoz stepped up and apologized fully in subsequent statements and press interviews.
As the CEO, all the mistakes, said Munoz, were “on me.”
Said Munoz: “The reason I’m sitting here today is because on April 9 we had a serious breach of public trust. I’d like to again apologize to Dr. Dao, to his family, to every person on that flight, 3411, and of course to all our customers and employees worldwide.
“Further, I’m personally sorry for the fact that my immediate response and the response of our airline was inadequate to that moment. No customer, no individual, should ever be treated the way Mr. Dao was, ever, and we understand that.”
• Munoz and Kirby got a break — they shared the spotlight with three other chattier airline representatives.
Indeed, the star of the hearing was the folksy Bob Jordan, the executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Southwest Airlines.
Southwest does not charge baggage or change fees and has a much simpler approach to, well, a lot compared to United and American.
“We try to make policies that just make sense for the customer. We feel like if you’re going to travel, it makes sense that you can bring your clothes along with you,” Jordan said.
• Surprisingly, lawmakers did not overly grill or prosecute Munoz and Kirby.
That’s because United massively defused the crisis by issuing a series of policy changes last week. Among other things, post-Dao, United now won’t call cops to settle a dispute over bumping a passenger; will offer up to $10,000 to get a volunteer to give up a seat, up from the $800 and $1,000 on the table on April 9; and will empower employees to take steps to find solutions.
There are four members from Illinois on the Transportation committee, GOP Reps. Michael Bost and Rodney Davis and Democrats Dan Lipinski and Cheri Bustos.
United is headquartered at 233 S. Wacker Dr. in Chicago and the Dao dragging took place at O’Hare, carried out by Chicago aviation cops who ultimately answer to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
If you thought this would add up to the Illinois members taking on an aggressive role at the hearing — well, that did not happen.
Only Davis and Lipinski asked questions, and neither chose to bring up the Dao incident directly.
Davis thanked Munoz for “taking responsibility as a CEO” and said government intervention is not the answer. “I don’t believe government can solve your problems . . . that is something you should do for your customers.”
Lipinski asked about “interline agreements” the airlines have to deal with passengers who are denied a seat on the flight they had booked.
The voluntary actions of United and the other airlines to improve customer service may not be enough, and that is the congressional sword hanging over the airline industry.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans and Kirby will testify before a Senate panel on Thursday.