CHICAGO (CBSNewYork/CBS Chicago/AP) — United Airlines chief executive officer Oscar Munoz issued an apology Tuesday for the treatment of a passenger dragged off a plane, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
The apology comes as the airline faces growing backlash over the incident at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Sunday afternoon. As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, even White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was responding to questions about it Tuesday.
“Clearly, watching another human being dragged down the aisle; you know, watching blood come from their face after hitting an armrest or whatever, I don’t think there’s a circumstance that you can sit back and say this probably could have been handled a little bit better when you’re talking about a human being,” Spicer said.
Video of the incident shows three security officials dragging Dr. David Dao, 69, down the aisle by his arms from United Airlines flight 3411. The man was screaming when he was pulled from his seat.
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“He kind of grabs him, pulls him off the seat,” another passenger, Tyler Bridges, said. “You see the man hit his head on the armrest. He looked like he was knocked unconscious.”
United originally characterized the flight as overbooked, but later said that was not the case. The crew was trying to make room for four employees of a partner airline who needed to get to Louisville by Monday morning to crew another flight, and the airline asked for four volunteers to give up their seats.
When they couldn’t get any volunteers to give up their seats, United picked four passengers at random to be removed from the flight. Passengers said at first, Dao said he would give up his seat.
“He volunteered — him and his wife — they volunteered, initially, for a second,” said passenger Jay Anspach. “But, once they found out the next flight wasn’t until today at 2:30 p.m., he said: ‘I can’t do that. I have to be at work.’ That may be one of the reasons why he was chosen.”
Dao said he was a doctor and had to get home to patients.
The airline then called security to help remove Dao.
A Chicago Department of Aviation security officer hauled Dao out of his seat, and dragged him down the aisle by his arms.
In the video, other passengers on Flight 3411 are heard saying, “Please, my God,” ”What are you doing?” ”This is wrong,” ”Look at what you did to him” and “Busted his lip.”
“We almost felt like we were being taken hostage,” said Bridges. “We were stuck there. You can’t do anything as a traveler. You’re relying on the airline.”
But incredibly, it did not end there. Passengers said Dao later ran back onto the plane and was seemingly frantic, saying he was doctor and repeatedly saying: “I have to get home!”
“So he runs to the back of the plane,” Bridges said. “And officers follow him there, stop, and kind of corner him in the stewardess gallery at the very back of the plane.”
A statement was released by Dao’s attorneys on Tuesday, saying he was undergoing treatment at a Chicago hospital for his injuries.
“The family of Dr. Dao wants the world to know that they are very appreciative of the outpouring of prayers, concern and support they have received. Currently, they are focused only on Dr. Dao’s medical care and treatment,” Chicago attorney Stephen L. Golan of Golan Christie Taglia said in a news release. The firm, along with Chicago aviation attorney Thomas A. Demetrio of Corboy & Demetrio, is representing the Dao family.
Meanwhile, the incident has fueled intense criticism of the airline online.
“We overbooked but you pay the price,” ”We Put The Hospital In Hospitality” and “We’ll drag you all over the world” were among the faux slogans being offered up on social media under #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos.
Others posted memes imagining Negan , the bat-wielding villain from “The Walking Dead,” patrolling the plane’s aisle. Another meme repurposed Monday’s viral image of a Florida sheriff denouncing drug dealers while surrounded by menacing officers by making the group appear to be standing in front of a United customer service counter.
Merriam-Webster says searches for the definition of “volunteer” in its online dictionary jumped 1,900% Monday. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “someone who does something without being forced to do it.”
Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago said there were many ways to avert what happened to Dao.
“Airlines have to understand that they cannot act with impunity,” Rehab told WBBM-TV, CBS2 Chicago. “Policies have to change, customers have to be respected and minorities and everyone else as well.”
Earlier in the day, many travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport, where United has a hub, also said they were appalled.
“Why couldn’t they just keep upping the offer until somebody enough free vouchers to step off the plane? Instead, they did this Nazi move,” traveler Nick Varacalli told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell.
“It seemed like the passenger was treated unfairly,” another man told 1010 WINS’ John Montone.
But one woman defended the airline.
“I think it was fair,” she said. “I’m sorry that it happened, but yes I really do because they had to do their job. They had to get the plane in the air.”
Munoz late Monday issued a letter defending his employees, saying the passenger was being “disruptive and belligerent.”
While Munoz said he was “upset” to see and hear what happened, “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,” he said.
The airline’s chief executive took a more repentant tone in his Tuesday apology, saying “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Munoz continued. “I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
He added the airline will conduct a “thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”
But some serious questions remain. Among them is why United did not offer more than the initial $800 to the passengers to get off. Federal law requires airlines to offer passengers up to four times the cost of the fare to their next stop, up to $1,350, if the airline can’t make arrangements for them to get to their next stopover or final destination less than two hours after their original flight, CBS Chicago reported.
An analyst also asked why the airline could not simply have asked someone else.
“Why didn’t they move down the list and see if there was another passenger who would get off the plane?” said travel industry analyst Henry Hartavelt.
But DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman blames Chicago Department of Aviation security officers, not United, for the conflict that erupted on the plane. He said the pilot is allowed to order anyone off the plane.
“If you’re bumped, there’s a series of compensation thresholds that you’re entitled to,” he told CBS2 Chicago’s Roseanne Tellez.
Chicago’s aviation department also said the security officer who grabbed the passenger had been placed on leave.
“The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department,” it said in a statement.
Coverage from CBS Chicago — Roseanne Tellez Reports:
The chairman of the Chicago City Council Aviation Committee has also called on United Airlines and Chicago Department of Aviation representatives out on the carpet to answer questions about the incident, CBS Chicago reported.
Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) said his committee will hold a public hearing on the incident on Thursday at Chicago’s City Hall, and his office has called on United Airlines and Chicago Department of Aviation representatives to testify.
Zalewski told the Chicago Sun-Times the incident was poorly handled, and that city aviation security officers likely undermined their longstanding argument that they should be allowed to carry guns.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) has further suggested federal laws regarding such situations might need to be changed. In a Facebook post, he called the video of the passenger being dragged off the plane “unsettling.”
“United failed in this instance, without a doubt. Many of us who fly frequently have experienced overbooking situations, but obviously how it was handled in this circumstance was unacceptable, and no passenger should ever be put through what this individual was,” Lipinski wrote. “It appears that the boarding system broke down at many levels, and I expect to hear soon from the Department of Transportation, United, and the Chicago Department of Aviation about what occurred, how they’ll prevent it from occurring again, and who will be held accountable. As someone who has advocated for passengers being afforded better consumer protections by airlines, this may be a case where we have to legislate appropriate action and recourse, because what occurred over the weekend can never happen again.”
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowksy (D-Ill.) also said she wants congressional hearings and legislation that would bar airlines from removing passengers who are already seated aboard an aircraft.
Christie asked Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to suspend the federal regulation that allows overbooking and the removal of passengers until a thorough review can be conducted.
The governor noted that United controls 70 percent of the flights in and out of Newark Liberty International Airport.
“This conduct is abusive and outrageous. The ridiculous statements, now in their third version, of the CEO of United Airlines displays their callousness toward the traveling public with the permission of the federal government,” Christie said in the letter. “I know the Trump Administration wants to reform regulations to help the American people. This would be a great place to start.”
And a crisis counselor told CBS2 Chicago’s Vince Gerasole that United is suffering dramatically as a result of the incident.
Coverage from CBS Chicago — Vince Gerasole Reports:
“It’s happening in an industry that everybody loves to hate,” Kalm said.
Kalm also said Munoz initially seemed to be blind to the optics in his original reactions.
“What he said originally was so tone deaf that it created the firestorm even more so than the issue itself,” Kalm told Gerasole.
SEIU Local 73 is representing the officer who was disciplined in the incident. Union officials issued a statement that said, in part, “The incident that occurred on United Flight 3411 was an unfortunate occurrence. We are aware the Chicago Department of Aviation is investigating the incident, and we will reserve further comment until the investigation is completed.”
United has said that it will be reaching out to Dr. Dao. Munoz says the results of their internal review will be released by the end of the month.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)