United Airlines’ initial attempt Monday to quell mounting outrage over viral videos of a passenger being dragged from his seat added fuel to the backlash against the airline. So on Tuesday, CEO Oscar Munoz called the event “truly horrific” in a second apology.
But while United was crafting another bid to defuse the situation, the flood of angry comments and memes on social media was replaced by tough questions from local and federal authorities and a mention of the incident by the White House.
Meanwhile, David Dao, the passenger at the center of the growing imbroglio, retained a high-powered Chicago personal injury lawyer, Thomas Demetrio.
Dao was in a Chicago hospital undergoing treatment for his injuries Tuesday, according to a statement from Demetrio, who is helping represent Dao and his family.
Demetrio’s practice centers on medical negligence, product liability, airplane crash and commercial litigation on behalf of plaintiffs and he has negotiated more than $1 billion in settlements, according to the firm’s website.
Dao was one of four passengers bumped from a United Express flight from O’Hare International Airport to Louisville, Ky., on Sunday evening to make room for four airline employees after the airline failed to find volunteers willing to take a later flight.
After Dao repeatedly refused to leave his seat, security personnel from the city’s aviation department pulled him from it, dragging him down the aisle and off the aircraft. Cellphone videos of the incident quickly went viral.
“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,” Munoz said in Tuesday’s statement.
The Association of Flight Attendants agreed. An involuntary bump “should never result in a passenger being physically injured,” spokeswoman Taylor Garland said.
The aviation security officer who pulled the man from his seat was placed on leave Monday, “pending a thorough review of the situation,” the Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement.
United will also review its own policies for handling situations where it has sold more tickets than seats available, including how it incentivizes customers to volunteer to take a later flight, Munoz said. Volunteers typically receive vouchers for future travel, and some questioned whether United could have avoided the incident by offering passengers a bigger reward.
United also is examining how it works with airport authorities and local law enforcement. Munoz promised to share the airline’s findings by the end of the month.
“I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” he said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog, an airfare listing and travel advice site, wasn’t so sure.
“He needs to apologize for the so-called apology,” said Hobica, referring to a Monday night letter to employees in which Munoz defended the airline’s policies and employees.
Given United’s history of contentious labor relations, it’s understandable that Munoz wanted to show his support, Hobica said, but he added that the airline waited too long to issue a broader mea culpa.
“I think Oscar needs to remember he’s shipping human beings, not auto parts,” he said.
At the close of trading Monday, the airline was valued at about $22.49 billion. At around noon on Tuesday, its value had sunk to $21.92 billion, a loss of more than $500 million. By close of trading its value had recovered a bit, to $22.25 billion.
Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owned about 9 percent of outstanding United shares as of February, lost more than $23 million as the stock dropped on Tuesday.
At Chicago’s City Hall, Aviation Committee Chairman Ald. Michael Zalewski, 23rd, called for a hearing and said the airline “needs to be put in the hot seat,” while in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Transportation confirmed it was reviewing whether the airline complied with rules around oversold flights.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer characterized the incident as “troubling” and said he was sure President Donald Trump had seen the video.
Meanwhile, legislators posed their own questions.
“Consumer trust and confidence are critical to ensure this industry continues to thrive, and we hope United Airlines will work diligently to immediately address this incident and make necessary improvements to ensure it does not occur again,” a group of 21 senators wrote in a letter to Munoz.
Separately, four senators sent several questions about the “very disturbing” incident in letters to Munoz and Ginger Evans, Chicago’s aviation commissioner.
The senators said it was “hard to believe that some combination of better planning, training, communication, or additional incentives” would not have mitigated the incident or prevented it.
Chicago Tribune’s Katherine Skiba contributed.
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