United CEO apologizes after passenger dragged off flight

United CEO apologizes after passenger dragged off flight
© Greg Nash

The top executive at United Airlines issued a public apology for having to “re-accommodate” customers, after a passenger was violently dragged off an overbooked flight.

United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a Monday statement that the airline is conducting a detailed review of the “upsetting event” and is reaching out directly to the passenger who was forcibly removed from a flight from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” Munoz said. “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

“We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation,” he added.

In several videos posted on Twitter, security officers can be seen forcibly removing a man from his seat and dragging the distressed passenger by his wrists down the aisle, as other customers yelled out in protest.

One passenger said on Twitter that the flight was four people overbooked, with those seats needed for airline personnel. But when no one volunteered to leave, customers were randomly selected to give up their seats.

The man who was dragged off the plane apparently refused to leave because he said he was a doctor who needed to reach his destination to treat patients. Authorities were then brought on board to assist with his removal.

“After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate,” a United spokesperson said earlier Monday. "We apologize for the overbook situation.”

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Crisis management experts blasted United for how it handled the incident, which comes on the heels of another public relations flap in which two teenage girls were temporarily denied boarding because they were wearing leggings.

"While this would normally be seen as a step in the right direction... United let an entire day elapse before this statement was released, and the messaging in the statement was a far cry from the original statement that was released immediately after the incident," said Matt Rizzetta, branding expert and CEO at North 6th Agency. "This has created a perception that United is simply reacting to the outpouring of negative sentiment they’ve received on social media since the story first broke, and not a display of genuine concern toward their customers."

Experts say it would have been more cost-efficient in the long run to keep offering higher compensation until four willing participants agreed to give up their seats.

"They should have gone as high as they needed,” said Eric Schiffer, CEO of Reputation Management Consultants. “This is equal to a $100M comped ticket if weighed on a brand destruction scale."

United Continental's stock, however, hardly reacted to the overbooking incident: shares were up by about 1 percent as of Monday afternoon.

Still, the incident has sparked widespread public backlash, though the practice of overbooking and bumping passengers is not uncommon or illegal.

The Department of Transportation says most airlines overbook their scheduled flights “to a certain extent” in order to compensate for no-shows. When that occurs, airlines are required to first offer volunteers compensation in exchange for their seats before bumping someone involuntarily.

Anyone bumped against their will may be entitled to compensation, the agency says, and must be given a written statement detailing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who gets on an overbooked flight and who doesn't.

The DOT said it is reviewing the latest incident to ensure United complied with all consumer protection rules.

“While it is legal for airlines to involuntary bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities,” a DOT spokesperson said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether passengers on the United flight were first offered compensation and how customers were selected to be bumped off the flight. The airline did not immediately return a request for comment.