As the United Airlines passenger-removal flap played badly on Wall Street, in the White House and even as far away as China on Tuesday, airline CEO Oscar Munoz finally gave a full-throated apology over the nearly two-day-old crisis and tempered previous assertions that airline employees handled the situation properly.
The bloodying of Dr. David Dao by Chicago aviation security police officers aboard Flight 3411 on Sunday evening not only was shaping up to be a black eye for Chicago’s hometown airline, but also for the city itself.
Shortly before Munoz’s apology, Mayor Rahm Emanuel broke his silence on the matter as both United and the city — which has become known internationally for violence and police-corruption problems — took beatings on social media.
The question for both Chicago’s hometown airline and city leaders was ‘Did the apologies come too little, too late?’
United risks a backlash from passengers who could boycott the airline as the busy summer travel season is about to begin.
For Chicago, it is another public-relations nightmare, adding to its reputation as a city unable to curb a crime wave in some neighborhoods, which President Donald Trump has highlighted with critical tweets.
Not even Dao — who remained hospitalized after being dragged out of a United Express jet and hired a prominent personal-injury attorney — emerged unscathed. By day’s end, the world knew about dark aspects of the 69-year-old grandfather’s past; the Elizabethtown, Kentucky, physician and successful poker player was convicted more than a decade ago of felony charges involving his prescribing of drugs and spent years trying to regain his medical license.
Emanuel didn’t discuss the United incident at a late-morning public appearance but released a statement later praising Aviation Commissioner Ginger S. Evans for suspending one of the aviation security officers involved.
“Anyone who saw that video had the same reaction: this was completely unacceptable at every level,” Emanuel said. “I appreciate that Ginger took swift action at the Department of Aviation, and her team is already hard at work on a thorough investigation – in partnership with the airline – to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”
About a couple of hours later, Munoz publicly walked back a memo he’d sent to United employees lauding the behavior of the flight crew who dealt with the “disruptive and belligerent” Dao and crediting them with following established procedures on the Louisville-bound flight.
Instead, Munoz said, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.” He also promised the results of an internal investigation of the incident would be announced by the end of the month.
“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened,” Munoz said. “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. . . . I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”
Just two weeks ago, United was at the center of another PR furor after a gate agent in Denver barred two girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings.
Dao’s Asian-American heritage played into the latest PR hit.
Videos of Dao being forcibly removed had been viewed more than 210 million times by late Tuesday on China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo, the Associated Press reported. Many responded with outrage over perceived bias against the passenger and some called for a boycott of United.
“Rubbish!” writer Su Danqing posted on Weibo. “When they were treating this Asian man, they never thought of human rights, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it that way.”
“Damn it! This airline must be boycotted!” said a posting from Liu Bing, a telecommunications company worker.
United does considerable business with Chinese passengers and a consumer boycott could cause it serious pain. United says it operates more nonstop U.S.-China flights to more cities in China than any other airline.
Also Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump had viewed a video of the incident. Asked how the president reacted, Spicer said: “I think clearly watching another human being dragged down an aisle, watching, you know, blood come from their face after hitting an armrest or whatever, I don’t think there’s a circumstance that you can sit back and say this probably could have been handled a little bit better.”
The fallout from a video also pulled down United shares. The stock slid 81 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $70.71.
United initially said the embarrassing incident spiraled out of control from a common air travel issue — an overbooked flight. But an airline spokesman said Tuesday that all 70 seats on Flight 3411 were filled, but the plane was not overbooked as the airline had previously reported.
Instead, United and regional affiliate Republic Airlines, which operated the flight, selected four passengers at random to be removed to accommodate four additional flight crew members needed in Louisville the next day. Three of the four then left the plane, with Dao being forcibly removed.
Munoz said the airline is conducting a thorough review of how the airline transports its flight crews, its policies on how to offer incentives for passengers to volunteer to be bumped from a flight.
He also said the airline will examine “how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”
The results of that review would be released by April 30, Munoz said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in both Chicago and Washington were planning hearings and considering legislative changes in the wake of the incident.
Charlie Leocha — president and founder of Travelers United, a passengers advocacy group — said United erred badly in letting passengers on the plane before soliciting volunteers to skip the flight or bumping passengers.
“If United had taken care of it before anybody got on the plane, which they absolutely should have done, it would have been absolutely no problem,” he said.
Dao’s background “should have no bearing on this whatsoever,” Leocha said. “The poor guy, I mean it’s almost like being struck by lightning, it could have been anyone. He’s getting screwed. First he got beaten up and dragged off the plane and now he’s being dragged through the mud.
“There were so many other options. United could have offered to pay up to $1,350, they could have had passengers driven to Midway and put on a Southwest flight to Louisville that same night, heck they could have gotten them a gold-plated limo with the money it’s costing United. . . . It’s crazy.”
Contributing: Associated Press, USA Today, Sam Charles and Mitch Armentrout