United Airlines stock took a dive and the company overall took a big hit to its public perception after a passenger was forcefully dragged off a plane.
On Sunday, multiple passengers on the Chicago-to-Louisville flight recorded footage of a man being forcibly removed from his seat. Dr. David Dao screams as he’s physically pulled and lifted into the aisle by security officers. There is blood visibly coming out of his mouth as the officers drag him up the aisle.
After the debacle, United Airlines claimed the flight was overbooked, and it was desperately in need of seats for some of its crew members. The airline said it has a “policy” in place when such situations arise, which can involve a passenger being denied a seat; in more urgent situations, some passengers’ seats may be taken away from them in exchange for monetary compensation. (In Dao’s case, he was reportedly offered $1,000.)
Munoz, who has been CEO of the airline since September 2015, defended his staff’s actions, saying that what happened was “established procedure.”
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” wrote Munoz in a statement. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
Later, he doubled down in a letter to employees. Underneath the letter he included his own rundown of the events on the airliner, calling Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent.”
Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.
As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.
I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.
Summary of Flight 3411
• On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crew members that were told they needed to board the flight.
• We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.
• He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
• Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
• Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist — running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.
Then, bowing to the public pressure and criticism, Munoz apologized in an open letter addressed to his “team,” conveying a more sympathetic and compassionate tone.
“No one should ever be mistreated this way,” said Munoz, who also pledged to conduct a wide-ranging review of company policies. He closed the letter by promising to “do better.”
Ironically, mere weeks prior to the plane incident, Munoz was being feted as a wonderful communicator by PRWeek, one of the biggest communications publications in the world. Specifically, he was praised for his ability to “better engage with employees and customers.”
In a press release issued by United on March 17, the airline states that Munoz “repeatedly referred to United as a ‘people business,’ and its strategy from day one has been to reconnect with employees and customers.”
On Tuesday, PRWeek did a full 180 in terms of their Munoz description, calling his response to the scandal “tone deaf.”
The publication unfavourably compares Munoz’s cold, arm’s-length apology to the swift action of the Chicago Department of Aviation, which immediately placed the officer involved in the plane altercation on leave.
Social media was, as always, unforgiving of PRWeek’s selection.
@PRWeekUS This didn't age well.
— Middle-Aged Griff (@GriffTheImpaler) April 10, 2017
— donholt99 (@donholt99) April 10, 2017
@PRWeekUS This is from The Onion, right?
— James Scott Ward (@JSWGolden) April 10, 2017
After all the backlash, PRWeek backtracked on its awarding of Munoz.
“The incident has shed much light on our choice of the United CEO as Communicator of the Year at the PRWeek Awards last month,” the organization wrote on its blog. “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that it is reviewing Sunday’s events to see if United violated rules on overselling flights.
— With files from The Associated Press