Just hours after commending employees and saying they followed proper procedure, United Airlines’ CEO has issued a full apology for the incident in which a bumped passenger was violently dragged off an aircraft.
In his apology, Oscar Munoz calls the incident “truly horrific,” apologizes to the passenger and promises a full review of United’s procedures for handling customers on oversold flights.
A male passenger was ordered to give up his seat on the April 9 flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, United Express flight 3411, because it was oversold and airline gate staff could not get anyone to volunteer to give up their seats. United needed at least four seats for flight crew who were en route to their next shift.
Video of the event, taken by a passenger in a nearby seat and widely disseminated, shows three law enforcement officers grabbing the passenger and dragging him on the floor by his arms toward the front of the aircraft. In the struggle, the passenger appears to hit his head and has a bloodied face. Other passengers can be seen looking shocked and protesting at the treatment of the man.
While Munoz issued a public statement Monday describing the event as “upsetting” and apologizing for the oversold situation, he then emailed an employee letter, obtained and released by several media, that appears to contradict the statement and which prompted more public and social media outrage on top of what was already a huge furor. United’s stock dropped again today.
In his statement released Tuesday afternoon, Munoz describes it as a “truly horrific event” and says he shares the sentiments of “outrage, anger, disappointment” that have been expressed by the public. “My deepest apologies for what happened. 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. No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” he says.
Munoz also promised a thorough review of how United moves its crews and its policies for handling oversold flights and how to get volunteers when seats are needed. “We are going to fix what’s broken,” he said, promising to communicate results of the review by April 30.
Whether this will be enough to calm the situation is not yet clear. Munoz’s emailed letter to employees had a very different tone, describing the affected passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and commending employees for “continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” Many will question which of Munoz’s sentiments are true—those expressed in the employee letter or those in the apology?
The incident has also created worldwide outrage. In China, an important market for United and one where it has a Star Alliance partner in Beijing-based Air China, millions have expressed their anger and are calling for a boycott of United.
The incident could have an impact beyond United; there are calls by US consumer advocates for congressional hearings in an environment that is already suspicious of US airline consolidation and revenue-raising business strategies such as ancillary fees for checked bags and aisle seats. Any new US laws that might be introduced as a result of this United incident would be imparted on all airlines, just as the heavy tarmac delay fines laws were imposed on all carriers after an infamous and widely publicized incident in 2007 when JetBlue Airways passengers were stranded on an aircraft for seven hours without food, water or functioning bathrooms.
Munoz took the helm at United in September 2015 when Jeff Smisek suddenly stepped down because of an internal investigation related to the US government investigation into the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Munoz, who had been CSX Corp. president, immediately made his priority to focus on restoring employee morale and customer service at United. But his new post was soon interrupted when he underwent emergency heart surgery in October that same year and a heart transplant the following January.
On his return to work, Munoz reshaped his executive suite, hiring two widely regarded industry leaders—former American Airlines president Scott Kirby (now United’s president) and former Allegiant Air president Andrew Levy (now United’s CFO). That leadership team has unveiled new cabin designs, products and amenities, but the task to restore the airline’s customer service reputation this week became far more difficult.
Karen Walker Karen.email@example.com