United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz on Tuesday took personal responsibility for an incident last month in which a passenger was battered and dragged from a flight, telling a congressional hearing, “We had a horrible failure three weeks ago.”
Munoz again apologized personally to David Dao, the passenger who boarded a United plane in Chicago and then refused to give up his seat when the airline needed it to accommodate crew members. Police were summoned, and Dao, 69, was dragged bloodied from the flight, as other passengers captured the scene on video.
“There will come a day when Americans won’t accept your apology,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) during the hearing before the House Transportation Committee. “We have a problem. It shouldn’t be as bad as it is.”
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said that “there’s something clearly broken when passengers have been treated the way they have.” He warned airlines to “seize the day” because if carriers do not reform their passenger policies, Congress would impose rules, and “you’re not going to like it.”
Ranking committee member Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said passenger rights have gotten short shrift as the industry has consolidated into four major carriers that handle 80 percent of flights. DeFazio said that 40,000 ticketed passengers were bumped from their flights last year. “Very few passengers have any idea what their rights are,” he said.
Munoz acknowledged United’s failures in his opening statement.
“We called law enforcement when a safety or security issue did not exist,” he said. “We rebooked crew at the very last minute. We didn’t offer enough compensation or travel options to incentivize a passenger to give up a seat. And, most important, our employees did not have the authority to do what was right for our customers.”
Last week, the airline released the results of an internal investigation into the matter, saying it had failed on multiple fronts and taking full responsibility for what happened to Dao. It also announced it has reached a confidential settlement with the Kentucky physician.
The hearing showcased stark differences in perception of the industry. Airline executives spoke glowingly, saying they are offering consumers lower fares and more choices than ever before. They are losing fewer bags and have improved their on-time performance. But some members, many of whom are frequent flyers, spoke of delays, lack of communication and the sense — captured in the video of Dao being dragged off his flight — that customers come last.
In addition to two hearings this week, Dao’s ordeal has prompted a flurry of legislation, including one bill that would ask the secretary of transportation to review the practice of overbooking and whether there should be limits on the number of seats an airline can sell on a flight. Even so, some members seemed willing to allow the airlines to make changes before legislating them.
Nevertheless, it was a long day for airline executives, who were repeatedly scolded for their seeming indifference to their customers.
“You’re not just in the transportation business, you’re in the customer service business,” said Rep. Elizabeth H. Etsy (D-Conn.)
Flying, added Capuano, “ … should not be as bad or unpleasant as it is and you are the only people who can fix it. Nobody is against you making money. I don’t want to yell at you. I just want to get from point a from Point A to Point B.”
But perhaps the best line of the hearing came from Rep. Robert Woodall (R-Ga.): “You know you’re having a bad day when the group that lectures you on customer service is Congress.”
The executives did have their allies, including Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., (R-TN) who said to the witness panel: “You all have a tough business.”
Much of the focus, however, was what actions airlines are taking to prevent a repeat of Dao’s violent encounter.
Munoz reiterated his pledge that the dragging incident would prompt a “culture change” at the airline starting with a new focus on the customer. Among the immediate changes is a rule that will bar law enforcement officials from boarding United flights unless it is a safety or security matter.
The airline also pledged to reduce its reliance on overbooking. Munoz said United would now offer up to $10,000 in flight vouchers to give up an overbooked seat. He also said that no passengers who have been seated would be asked to leave the airplane, except in situations involving security or safety.
Munoz was joined by United President Scott Kirby, who defended overbooking as necessary in some situations.
“We view overbooking where we can incentivize a customer to take an alternative flight as a win-win situation for both the airline and those customers,” Kirby said, “and 96 percent of the incidents where we have an overbooking we were able to get customers to be volunteers [to take another flight]. And in today’s world, where we’re increasing the compensation to $10,000, we hope to drive that down to zero.”
The four Chicago Department of Aviation officers involved in the April 9 incident at O’Hare International Airport, have been suspended for their handling of Dao. Dao last week reached a confidential settlement with United.
“You made your problem the customer’s problem,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) told Munoz.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Munoz responded.
At the hearing, lawmakers themselves also griped about delays, shrinking seat sizes and, in some markets, a lack of choice for direct flights from their home districts to Washington.
The forced removal of Dao was followed by a second videotaped disruption on an April 21 American Airlines flight. That event involved a confrontation between an flight attendant who allegedly tried to pull a baby stroller away from a passenger who was holding her baby. A video of the incident shows the mother in tears as the flight attendant turns on a passenger who tried to intervene. The flight attendant then taunts the passenger, daring him to strike him.
American Airlines publicly apologized in the aftermath, removed the flight attendant from service and upgraded the woman and her family to first class for the balance of her international flight.
“It shouldn’t take a media event or a viral social media outcry to get executive in this industry to rethink how they treat their customers,” said William J. McGee, an aviation consultant with the Consumers Union.
United CEO tells Congress man dragged from flight was a ‘horrible failure’ by airline – Washington Post