United passenger issues statement; CEO calls incident ‘horrific’

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CHICAGO —  The family of the man pulled off the United Airlines flight Sunday, said he is receiving treatment for his injuries.

Attorneys for Dr. David Dao said he is undergoing treatment in 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,” said attorney Stephen L. Golan and aviation attorney Thomas A. Demetrio. “Until Dr. Dao is released from the hospital, the family is asking for privacy and will not be making any statements to the media.”

Earlier in the day, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for the forcible removal of a paying passenger from one of its flights and called the episode “truly horrific.”

Munoz pledged a full review by April 30 “to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

“I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” Munoz said in a statement on Tuesday. “I promise you we will do better.”

It was his third attempt to quell growing outrage after a passenger was removed, bloodied and screaming, from a flight that was to take off from Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. United wanted to give seats to commuting crew members.

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In his first statement, Munoz apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers.” In his second statement, he described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.”

Last month, United Airlines Munoz was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by the magazine PRWeek.

Now he’s being raked over the coals for his response to a violent passenger incident on a United Airlines flight.

Royal Jordanian Airlines ribbed United with a tweet. “We are here to keep you #united,” it said. “Dragging is strictly prohibited.”

Emirates also got in on the action. In a video, it referenced United CEO Oscar Munoz’s putdown of Middle Eastern competitors last month. He told the airline trade publication ATW: “Those airlines aren’t airlines. They’re international branding vehicles for their countries.”

The Emirates video said: “Well Mr. Munoz, according to TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site, not only are we a real airline … we are the best airline.”

It also listed some of the accolades Emirates has received from TripAdvisor, before ending with this message: “Fly the friendly skies … this time for real.”

The biggest three U.S. airlines have taken issue with alleged subsidies that Etihad Airways, Emirates and Qatar Airways receive from their governments.

In February, the CEOs of United, American Airlines and Delta wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February to object. They want the U.S. government to review agreements that allow the Gulf carriers to fly freely from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to any U.S. destination.

Public relations experts say the CEO should have quickly offered an unreserved apology after a customer was filmed on Sunday being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged down an overbooked aircraft’s aisle.

Instead, Munoz apologized only for “having to re-accommodate … customers.”

Many customers found the response to be overly callous — and said so on social media, where video of the incident had gone viral.

Munoz doubled down in a letter sent to United employees on Monday afternoon, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” He also said that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

Rupert Younger, a PR expert and director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, said that Munoz’s response was a major disappointment, and that United should have moved much more quickly to limit damage from the video.

“The apology by the CEO was, at best, lukewarm or, at worst, trying to dismiss the incident,” said Younger. “The CEO should make a better, more heartfelt, more meaningful and more personal apology.”

Younger said that United should also address public concerns over industry policies related to bumping passengers from their flights.

The United response “looks uncaring and it looks like it’s effectively trying to apologize for the incident without really addressing the core issue of how they deal with customers,” said Younger, co-founder of the PR firm Finsbury.

United is now struggling to contain fallout from the incident. On Tuesday, the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users suggesting slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.”

Company shares, which weathered the storm on Monday, were sharply lower in premarket trading.

Meanwhile, video of the incident was attracting huge attention in China, which is a key growth market for United.

United was the top trending topic Tuesday on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, attracting more than 100 million views.

James Fallows, a journalist who has written a book about China’s aviation industry, called out United for failing to respond while the incident dominated social media discussions in such a key market.

“[United is] suffering *profound* damage in most important international market right now, and no sign of response,” he said in a post on Twitter.

Ed Zitron, a PR expert and the author of “This Is How You Pitch,” said that United may not be offering a full apology because of fears over a potential lawsuit.

That’s not an effective strategy, he said.

“Had United shown compassion and intent to make things right, they could have come out of this at the very least looking like an airline that cares,” Zitron said. “Instead they’ve just made it even worse.”