Oscar Munoz has been credited for his people skills, last month winning a Communicator of the Year award from PRWeek magazine.
But the United Airlines CEO’s abilities have now been put to the test after a passenger who refused to leave an over-booked flight was dragged away by security and ended up with visible injuries to his face.
Time will tell if Munoz’s response was adequate, though it only appears to have intensified a well of criticism that first sprung up on social media and spread to late-night television talk shows and international news outlets. Some investors already have cast their verdict, sending United shares down as much as 6% in early trade this morning.
The treatment of the as-yet-unnamed passenger was caught by a fellow traveler on camera. He had already been seated but was one of four customers asked to leave to make way for United staff because the airline had mistakenly overbooked the flight. A fellow passenger said the man was a doctor who said he needed to work the next day. When he refused to leave, United called security, who violently removed him.
He managed to run back onto the plane and was visibly distressed with blood coming from his face.
Munoz issued the following public statement on Monday afternoon: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We also are reaching out to this passenger to talk directly with him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Munoz’s use of the word “re-accommodate” was subsequently criticized on various media channels. One person posted on Twitter, for example: “Nice to know “re-accommodate” on United now means “drag you violently out of your seat.”
Last night, Munoz wrote an email to staff that appeared to double-down on his defense of the airline. In it, he called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”, while insisting staff had followed correct operating procedures and had absolutely no choice but to contact security.
“While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right,” he wrote to staff. “I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
Munoz is correct when he says United staff didn’t break any rules. Airlines are indeed allowed to remove passengers from flights, even if they were at fault for overbooking them. Dissenting passengers can be physically forced to leave, though this would appear to be the nuclear option.
One of the three security officers involved has been placed on leave, the Chicago Department of Aviation said, while stating that his actions were “obviously not condoned by the department”.
Extended footage of the incident can be viewed here.