CHICAGO (BLOOMBERG) - United Continental Holdings Inc. is reimbursing all passengers on the flight where a man was forcibly removed by security officers, attempting to make peace in a public relations mess that refuses to die.
The refund follows an extraordinary several days for the airline after video posted on social media showed Vietnamese-American doctor David Dao, 69, being pulled from his seat and dragged down the aisle of a plane after refusing to give up his spot on the overbooked flight.
Rarely has an airline - or any company - faced the kind of global condemnation that has buffeted United. After the blunder of the initial incident on Sunday (April 9) was compounded by one botched response after another, the Chicago-based carrier is stepping up the effort to get back in consumers' good graces.
"They are trying to get some positive PR after their consistent horrendous failures on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-industry consulting firm. "Will it get the goodwill United wants? It's doubtful, but it will help."
Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz's initial comments made the company a punch line on social media as far away as China and sparked criticism from US politicians. It wasn't until Tuesday that Munoz was more contrite. "No one should ever be mistreated this way," he said.
Reimbursing all the passengers on flight 3411 "is a smart thing to do," Harteveldt said. Compensating everyone on a flight usually happens when a plane is delayed significantly on a tarmac, he said.
It's impossible to say how much reimbursing the 70 passengers on the Louisville, Kentucky-to-Chicago flight will cost until United offers details on the form of compensation.
Megan McCarthy, a spokesman for the carrier, declined to say if it would be in cash, frequent-flier miles or other forms.
Delta Air Lines Inc. in November refunded passengers on a flight who were subjected to another passenger's inflammatory comments aimed at women who supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Bruce Hicks, a public-relations consultant for carriers, said his former employer, Continental Airlines, once reimbursed all passengers for a flight that involved long delays and poor customer service. He speculated that Munoz may not have had all the facts when he made his comments the first couple of days.
Otherwise, "he wouldn't have stumbled so horribly," Hicks said.
The reimbursement and Munoz's apology on Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," in which the CEO came across as sincere, helped the airline's cause, Hicks said. He added that he doesn't expect the fiasco will inflict long-term damage on United, partly because airline mergers have left little competition on some routes and since frequent-flier programs cement ties to travellers.
Dao was treated in a Chicago hospital for his injuries, according to a statement from lawyers who said they represent him. The lawyers sought a court order on Wednesday in Chicago to preserve evidence, including surveillance videos, crew lists and other information, that could be used in litigation. A lawsuit hasn't been filed.
The Chicago Department of Aviation on Wednesday put two more officers on leave amid its review of flight 3411. The agency put one officer on leave on Monday.