United offers a belated apology
Airline says flight was not overbooked
Oscar Munoz said he was disturbed by the incident. (AP)
By Avi Selk and Lori Aratani
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — After two days of conflicting corporate statements, a falling stock price, and swelling outrage, United Airlines entered full-scale mea culpa mode Tuesday, as its chief executive announced an internal investigation into a Sunday evening flight in which a man was dragged violently from his seat so a crew member could have it.

‘‘I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight,’’ United chief executive Oscar Munoz said in a prepared statement.

‘‘I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.’’

‘‘We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again,’’ Munoz wrote — promising a report on the beleaguered airline’s policies on calling police, transferring crew, and ‘‘how we handle oversold situations.’’

It was the latest in a flurry of attempts from the airline to defuse a public relations crisis.

Hours earlier, according to USA Today, a United spokesperson had backed off the companies initial claims that the flight was ‘‘overbooked’’ — rather than disrupted to transport off-duty crew.

And before that, on Monday, Munoz had defended his employees, saying the passenger, who refused to give up his seat, was belligerent. The battered and bloodied man was dragged back to the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

One of the officers involved in the incident was placed on leave pending an investigation. But international outrage continued Tuesday, with United’s stock price falling, memes exploding, and disturbing videos of the incident shared across the world.

The White House also weighed in. Press secretary Sean Spicer called the videos ‘‘troubling’’ but dismissed calls for a federal investigation into what he said should be ‘‘a very simple local matter.’’ The US Department of Transportation also said it was looking into the matter.

In China, where United bills itself as a top carrier, tens of millions of people have read or shared a report that the passenger claimed he was targeted for being Chinese. Many there are now echoing calls in the United States for a boycott.

‘‘Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night,’’ Munoz wrote in a memo to the company — while defending the crew’s conduct on the Louisville-bound plane as ‘‘established procedures.’’

‘‘I deeply regret this situation arose,’’ Munoz wrote, according to the Associated Press. But, ‘‘I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.’’

United’s brief initial response to the incident — that Flight 3411 was ‘‘overbooked’’ and police were called after a man ‘‘refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily’’ — has now given way to a more detailed story told by witnesses, police, the Chicago Department of Aviation, and Munoz himself.

It’s a story that has shaken a global air carrier worth billions of dollars — and one that people around the world can find nothing right in at all.

In early trading Tuesday morning, United had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in market capital, according to MarketWatch. But the stock recovered by the end of the day to close down 81 cents.

‘‘How to make a PR crisis a total disaster,’’ was the headline on a CNN story about United’s response to the incident.

Flight 3411 had finished boarding Sunday evening, according to a summary attached to Munoz’s letter, when ‘‘gate agents were approached by crew members’’ who needed seats.

Passengers were initially offered money if they gave up their seats, but no one volunteered.

If the off-duty crew had not been able to get to Louisville that night, a United spokesman told the Louisville Courier Journal, another flight might have been canceled. So the airline invoked what it describes as its ‘‘involuntary denial of boarding process.’’

Which is where the trouble started.

When passengers expecting to take off for Louisville learned that some of them would be forced to leave, the mood on the jet quickly soured, Tyler Bridges told The Washington Post.

Bridges and his wife were on the last leg of a journey home from Japan, he said. Before takeoff, an airline supervisor brusquely announced: ‘‘This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.’’

And since no passenger was willing, United chose for them.

A young couple ‘‘begrudgingly got up and left,’’ Bridges recalled.

The third evictee complied, too.

But when the crew approached what Chicago police told NBC was a 69-year-old Asian man in a window seat, he refused.

‘‘He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight,’ ’’ Bridges said. ‘‘’I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning.’’’

United said crew members apologetically told the man to leave, several times, ‘‘and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.’’

‘‘He wasn’t cussing, but he was yelling and he was upset,’’ Bridges said.

‘‘He said, more or less, ‘I’m being selected because I’m Chinese.’ ’’ (Another witness on the plane said the man was originally from Vietnam, according to the BBC.)

So the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare.

An officer boarded. Then a second and a third.

By then, Bridges and another passenger were taking video on their cellphones — footage that would soon be seen by millions.

As officers leaned over the lone holdout in a window seat, passengers across the aisle sympathized with him.

‘‘Can’t they rent a car for the pilots?’’ a woman asks in the videos.

Out of frame, the man suddenly screams.

One of the officers quickly reaches across two empty seats, yanks him up, and pulls him into the aisle.

‘‘My God!’’ someone yells — not for the first time.

The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police.

‘‘It looked like it knocked him out,’’ Bridges said. ‘‘His nose was bloody.’’

In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor.

Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone as an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.

‘‘Like a rag doll,’’ as one witness wrote on Twitter.