Wednesday, April 12, 2017
United Fesses Up, They Did Wrong
United Airlines said it will no longer call on law enforcement to remove paid and seated passengers who have not agreed to give up their places on sold-out flights, one of several moves the airline announced Wednesday to try to quell a week of consumer outrage.
The Chicago airline’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, told ABC News’ “Good Morning America” on Wednesday morning that he felt “shame” when he watched the video of a passenger, Dr. David Dao, being dragged off a sold-out United flight bound for Louisville, Ky., on Sunday by Chicago airport police.
United has said it needed to bump four passengers to make room for airline employees who needed to travel to Louisville. The airline reportedly offered $400 and a hotel stay, and then $800 to passengers to induce them to give up their seats. When there were no volunteers, United selected Dao and other passengers to get off the plane.
Dao refused, prompting airport police to pull him screaming from his seat.
Also on Wednesday, the Chicago Department of Aviation put two more officers who were involved in the onboard fracas on administrative leave, joining an officer who was suspended earlier. The passenger, Dao, took steps that could be a prelude to a lawsuit, and President Trump weighed in on the controversy.
During his interview, Munoz apologized to Dao, his family, passengers on the plane, United customers and employees, pledging that this “will never happen again on a United Airlines flight.”
“That is not who our family at United is,” Munoz said.
Later Wednesday, United said all customers on that flight are receiving compensation for their ticket costs.
Such moves are the right first steps, branding experts said. But they believe the airline will have to do a lot more to regain the trust of customers.
“They have so destroyed the connection and trust they’ve built up over the years,” said Eric Schiffer, chief executive of Reputation Management Consultants in Irvine. “And it wasn’t just the beat-down of a customer that everyone could project themselves being — it was the response afterwards, which was so cold and done with such a lack of empathy. It made people believe they just don’t care."
After the videos and photos of Dao’s removal from the plane generated public outrage, Munoz initially said in a letter to employees that the 69-year-old physician from Elizabethtown, Ky., was a “belligerent” customer who “refused to comply” with requests to give up his seat.
Munoz apologized to Dao in subsequent statements, calling the incident a “truly horrific event.” In Wednesday’s interview, Munoz said his initial words “fell short of truly expressing what we were feeling.”
Munoz said the airline will conduct a “deep and thorough” review of many of its policies related to this, including the incentives offered to give up seats once people are aboard an aircraft. If no one chooses to leave the plane, despite the compensation offered, Munoz said United will not put a law enforcement official on the plane to take them off.
“To remove a booked, paid, seating passenger, we can’t do that,” he said.
This change could spread to other airlines, analysts said.
“It just seems like something that is rare enough where there’s a lot of upside to be able to promise passengers that this is not going to happen to you and it’s not costly to do,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly. “There’s just no downside to doing this.”
In 2016, airlines posted an involuntary bumping rate of 62 per 1 million passengers, down from 73 per 1 million fliers the year before, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The bureau said the 2016 figure represents the lowest annual rate since 1995.
Delta and American airlines did not respond to requests for comment on whether their policies would change.
Although United has denied reports that the Chicago flight was overbooked, the incident has resulted in increased scrutiny of this common airline practice.
Jan Brueckner, professor of economics at UC Irvine, said overbooking can actually benefit consumers. If an airline flies with empty seats, it forgoes revenue on the flight.
“Eliminating empty seats is a good idea because it keeps fares down,” he said. “People don’t like it because it’s crowded, but still, they care more about the price than anything.”
Rather than changing policies on overbooking, airlines should adjust their compensation policies to get more volunteers to take a later flight, he said. Currently, federal rules cap the compensation amount that airlines can pay for involuntary bumping at $1,350.
President Trump also brought up this point in a Wednesday interview with the Wall Street Journal. Trump said airlines shouldn’t be prevented from overselling flights, but should eliminate the maximum value of compensation vouchers so passengers have more incentive to give up their seats.
On Wednesday, Dao asked a Chicago-area court for an order requiring United and the city of Chicago to retain all recordings, video and reports of the incident, as well as the personnel files of the aviation department officials who pulled him from the flight, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Thomas A. Demetrio and Stephen L. Golan, attorneys representing Dao, said they planned to hold a news conference in Chicago on Thursday morning.
In his interview with ABC News, Munoz said he had reached out to Dao and left a message, but hasn’t yet been able to connect with the passenger.
When asked whether he believed Dao was at fault, Munoz hesitated before saying, “No, he can’t be. He was a paying passenger sitting in a seat in our aircraft, and no one should be treated that way, period."