Airline Promises Policy Review

United Airlines responds to criticism after the forcible removal of a passenger

April 12, 2017

United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz speaks during the 2017 Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on March 2. Muñoz has promised a full review of United’s policies for situations involving overbooked flights.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz has promised the company would review and reconsider its policies for situations involving overbooked flights.

The pledge came on April 12. It followed a wave of criticism of United that began on April 10. Cellphone videos surfaced showing Aviation Department police officers dragging a passenger off a United flight.

A United Airlines passenger plane flies over Chicago, Illinois, on April 11.

A United Airlines passenger plane flies over Chicago, Illinois, on April 11.

The passenger was identified as physician David Dao, 69, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The incident occurred when Dao refused to give up his seat after being ordered to do so.

On April 9, United was trying to make room for four of its employees on Flight 3411 from Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky. The airline had asked for volunteers to give up their seats, offering up to $800 per passenger. When no one accepted the offer, United chose four passengers at random. Three got off the plane. But Dao said he was a doctor and had to get home to treat patients the next morning.

Three Aviation Department police officers boarded the plane and told Dao he had to leave. Dao refused. On the videos, one officer can be seen grabbing Dao from his window seat as Dao begins to scream. The officer then pulls Dao across the armrest and drags him down the aisle by his arms. The videos show that Dao’s face was injured during the incident.

A Series of Statements

In his April 12 statement, Muñoz called the incident a “truly horrific event” and said that he was disturbed by it.

“I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” he said. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

It marked a major shift by Muñoz. In a previous statement, released the day before, he expressed his support for how the situation was handled. Muñoz also described Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.”

The flight had originally been reported as overbooked. On April 11, though, a United spokesperson told USA Today that all 70 seats on the plane were filled but the flight had not been overbooked.

Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11.

Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11.

Still, Muñoz said that he has called for “a thorough review” of the company’s policies for encouraging passengers to volunteer to give up their seats when flights are overbooked. The results of that report should be released by April 30.

In the meantime, the Chicago Department of Aviation said that one of the officers who removed Dao from the plane did not follow proper procedures. That officer has been placed on leave.

Dao was taken to a Chicago hospital for treatment of his injuries, his attorney said in a statement.

Crisis Management

As United begins its review, U.S. lawmakers are also looking into the incident.

Leaders of the Senate’s commerce committee, including Republicans John Thune of South Dakota and Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida and Maria Cantwell of Washington, have called for a full report from the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday that it is reviewing what happened on Flight 3411 to see if United broke any rules on overbooking flights. It is a common practice among airlines to sell more tickets than there are seats. The airlines overbook because they expect several people not to show up for a flight, and they want to ensure that every seat gets filled.

Muñoz said that United would reexamine how it handles “oversold situations” and how it works with airport authorities and local law enforcement. And he promised that United “will work to make it right.”

“I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again,” he said.

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