United Airlines says review shows 'many things went wrong' in passenger-dragging incident

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - United Airlines has admitted in a new report that several mistakes were made before, during and after a man was violently dragged off a flight earlier this month, including calling in law enforcement to resolve an incident that was neither a safety nor security issue.

In the report, released on Thursday (April 27), the airline says it had allowed internal policies to distract from the need to treat passengers with dignity and respect and it outlines what the company intends to do to prevent a repeat of the incident.

"This is a turning point for all of us at United and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline," CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement that accompanied the release of the report on the April 9 incident at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

"Our customers should be at the centre of everything we do and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust."

With the report, Munoz makes good on a public promise he made several days after David Dao, 69, was dragged out of his seat, down the aisle and off the plane after he refused to give up his seat for off-duty crew. Other passengers captured the incident on their phones and shared video that has been viewed millions of times worldwide and sparked international outrage.

Lawyers representing Dao said he suffered a concussion, broken nose and two missing teeth, among other injuries.

Four aviation security officers involved in the incident have been placed on leave while the investigation continues.

"United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened," reads the report's introduction. "The intention of this report is to communicate concrete and meaningful actions that will avoid putting our customers, employees and partners in impossible situations."

The report lays out four ways in which United says it failed both its passengers and employees. In addition to unnecessarily summoning law enforcement, the airline should not have tried to find space on the flight for crew members at the last minute.

It also should have offered more compensation or more transportation options in order to entice customers to give up their seats voluntarily, but it acknowledged that agents did not have the authority to make such decisions.

Finally, the report said the airline has not provided regular training for employees on how to deal with "denied boarding situations". "Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: Our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what's right," Munoz said.

The report, which outlines 10 changes the airline is making to prevent a repeat of the incident, is the most detailed account yet of the events that led to Dao's removal from Flight 3411.

According to the report, Flight 3411, scheduled to leave Chicago at 5.40pm local time for Louisville, was overbooked by one seat. After no volunteers came forward, the airline bumped a passenger who had not yet received a seating assignment. That person received a cheque as compensation and was booked on another United flight, the report said. The remaining passengers were allowed to board.

At the same time, however, another United flight to Louisville that had been scheduled to depart at 2.55pm was delayed because of mechanical difficulties. The airline needed to get four crew members who had been booked on that earlier flight to Louisville on Sunday night in order to prevent at least one - and possibly - several other flights from being cancelled.

And so the crew members were rebooked on Flight 3411. As a result, the airline needed four of the 70 passengers aboard to give up their seats. The gate agent offered US$800 (S$1,117) in travel credits plus the cost of meals and a hotel stay and when no one came forward, the agent followed United's procedure for involuntarily bumping passengers.

A United supervisor boarded the plane and told a couple they would have to leave. The couple left. The supervisor then told Dao and his wife they would have to leave. Dao refused. After multiple refusals, United officials told Dao they would call authorities if he continued to protest.

At this point another passenger volunteered to leave the plane in exchange for US$1,000 in compensation. But United officials still needed a fourth seat. Chicago Department of Aviation officers, who the report noted, "historically (have) been effective in getting customers to voluntarily comply" then arrived on the scene. They too were unsuccessful in persuading Dao to leave.

According to the report, the United supervisor left the aircraft to call a manager. It was at that point that Dao, the report said, "... was physically removed from the aircraft" by the aviation security officers.

That moment, captured on video by other passengers aboard the flight, showed Dao yelling as he is pulled from his seat and then dragged down the aisle of the plane.

But United is promising change.

Under the airline's new customer-first policy, travellers who voluntarily give up their seats will be eligible to receive up to US$10,000 in travel certificates. United employees will be given new authority to find creative solutions to get bumped passengers to their final destinations - even if it means booking them on another airline or sending them to another airport.

In addition to increasing the compensation for passengers who voluntarily give up their seats, the airline will create an automated system to identify passengers willing to give up their seats and allow them to set the level of compensation they would be willing to accept. Starting in August, the airline also will offer additional training for front-line staff and later this year will roll out an app that will allow employees to immediately compensate customers when a service issue arises. It also will create a "customer solutions team" charged with finding ways to get displaced passengers where they need to go.

Even though United officials say only a small percentage of passengers are involuntarily bumped from the airline's flights, they said they will reduce overbooking on those flights where volunteers are less likely to come forward.

Overbooking is not illegal, but has drawn new scrutiny from members of Congress following the airline's treatment of Dao.

It's unclear whether United's actions will be enough to satisfy lawmakers who are already demanding changes to the way airlines treat customers. Among the provisions of a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday is one that would require the Secretary of Transportation to re-examine airlines' practice of overbooking to determine whether limits should be placed on how many seats an airline can sell.

United had already announced some new procedures and changes. Munoz said the airline will limit the use of law enforcement to "safety and security issues only". He also announced that the airline will no longer bump passengers once they have boarded their flight unless it involves a safety or security issue.

The report notes that after being removed from the plane, Dao returned and according to video and passenger accounts, his face was bloodied. Incident reports released by the Chicago Department of Aviation this week said Dao became increasingly combative and began swinging his arms with his fists closed after one of the officers tried to grab him.

It says the officer was able to pull Dao up from his seat and towards the aisle, but then lost his grip because Dao kept fighting. The police report said Dao was removed from the plane with "minimal but necessary force".

Munoz, however, again apologised for the events and took responsibility. "Every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect," he said. "Two weeks ago, we failed to meet that standard and we profoundly apologise."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.