United Airlines announced an update to its policy on allowing its flight crews to displace passengers who are already seated on a plane. Under the new policy, crew members traveling on its aircraft must be booked into seats at least 60 minutes before departure. The airline made the change after two separate videos––one showing aviation security officials dragging a passenger out of his seat and down the aisle, and other showing him bleeding and disoriented after the assault––went viral on social media.
According to internal emails published by TMZ, crews who are not booked within the 60-minute window will need to be booked on the next available flight. No crew member “can displace a customer who has boarded an aircraft,” according to the email published Friday.
United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin confirmed the authenticity of the email, and said the policy shift is meant to ensure that similar incidents “will never happen again.” She noted that previously crew members could be booked up until the time of departure.
“This is one of our initial steps in a review of our policies to deliver the best customer service,” Schmerin said.
On April 9, O’Hare International Airport police forcibly removed Dr. David Dao from United Express Flight 3411 after he refused to comply with management’s demands that he leave the plane. Dao suffered a concussion, broken nose, and lost teeth.
Prior to the incident, managers offered compensation to passengers to vacate their seats to make room for four crew members who needed to cover an unstaffed flight in Louisville, but none of the travelers accepted. Four passengers were selected for involuntary removal from the flight. Three passengers complied, but Dao refused, saying he needed to see patients the following day at his clinic. Immediately following the altercation, several distressed passengers opted to voluntarily leave the plane. Shortly after Dao, disoriented, managed to reboard, repeatedly saying, “I have to go home.” He collapsed and was carried out of the plane on a stretcher. The remaining passengers were deplaned while airline staff cleaned the blood from the assault.
After the incident, one of the officers who removed Dao was placed on administrative leave. The other two officers were also disciplined not long after. As social media erupted with a firestorm of criticism leveled at the airline, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement regretting the need to “re-accommodate” passengers, which served only to worsen the matter by adding tone-deafness to brutality as descriptors for the airline. In an internal email, Munoz referred to Dao as “disruptive” and “belligerent” but another video that emerged of his confrontation with the officers seemed to show otherwise. An online petition calling for Munoz’s resignation began to circulate in response. United lost more than $1 billion in market value as investors fled the company.
Munoz appeared more sensitive to the scandal in a second statement.
“I continue to be disturbed by what happened. I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz told United employees. “No one should ever be mistreated this way . . . It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
Munoz pledged to have a public report by April 30, but the incident left many wondering what legal recourse passengers actually have in such a circumstance. The Department of Transportation says it is now reviewing the incident.
Munoz has reached out to Dao’s lawyers, reportedly apologizing several times. Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, said at a news conference Thursday that Dao will “probably” pursue legal action against the airline.
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Alan is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. His work has been featured in such publications as The Huffington Post, The Advocate, Towleroad, Elite Daily, and Chelsea Station.