United CEO Oscar Munoz blames David Dao incident on ‘system failure’
"We breached public trust, and it's a serious breach," Munoz said in an exclusive interview Thursday with NBC News' Lester Holt.
BY DANIELLA SILVA, NBC News
(NBC News) - United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is blaming "a system failure" for the dragging of a passenger off a flight earlier this month — as the airline unveiled new policies, including a promise not to use law enforcement to remove overbooked customers from planes.
"We breached public trust, and it's a serious breach," Munoz said in an exclusive interview Thursday with NBC News' Lester Holt, adding that he had introduced changes at the company because "a circumstance like we've all witnessed should have never happened, never happened."
He also pledged to reduce the amount of overbooking, improve training for its workers and offer up to $10,000 for customers willing to volunteer to take a later flight.
David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor, was caught on video being dragged out of his seat and off a flight at an airport in Chicago after he had been randomly selected as one of four passengers to be removed from the plane. Earlier, the crew had tried to entice volunteers to give up their seats with $800 in travel credits, but had no takers.
The airline said it wanted to make room for staff who were heading to Louisville to be in place for a morning flight.
Chicago Department of Aviation employees forcibly grabbed Dao from the cabin, leaving him bloodied and with injuries that included two lost teeth, a broken nose and a "significant" concussion, according to Dao's attorney. At least four law enforcement officers have been placed on leave following the April 9 incident.
Munoz recognized that United's policies and procedures have put everyone — from passengers to law enforcement — in "impossible situations."
"We got to stop from doing that," the CEO said.
"Do I believe what the law enforcement folks did was wrong? Yeah," he added.
While Munoz said there will still be circumstances where officers will be needed, he believes that if United refocuses its business by "putting the customer at the center of this, I think the policies will sort of fan out and avoid issues like that."
Meanwhile, United was reeling from another public image crisis on Wednesday after a valuable giant rabbit named Simon died while on the ground after a long flight from London.
"We are deeply sorry for the loss of anything from your luggage to, of course, a loved pet," Munoz said, adding that they were continuing to fix any ongoing concerns with the airline.
When asked if the incident with Dao had hurt the company's bottom line, Munoz claimed he had not yet checked on the numbers.
"I haven't looked. And our team hasn't looked," he said.
"And so we'll see. But that hasn't been a focus for me or for us during this period," he added.
Shares of United Continental had slipped immediately following the Dao incident, but the company's quarterly earnings report slightly beat estimates later in the month.
Munoz said that while some of the company's policies and procedures were "dated," they were still working to "put the customer at the center of everything we do."
That includes customers who pay both high and low fares, he said.
"We're going to teach and broaden sort of the cultural impact of respect and dignity, regardless of where you're sitting," he added. "And that's why we've said — once you've boarded an aircraft, we're not going to take you off, except for safety and security."
Munoz also noted that United has implemented changes including requiring crew members to be booked on flights at least an hour before takeoff.
Among the other new measures is additional training for front-line employees on how to deal with difficult situations and make on-the-spot decisions. The company also says they are setting up an automated system that will ask passengers at check-in if they would be willing to give up their seat.
Dao's attorney, Thomas Demetrio, applauded United's efforts in a statement early Thursday for promptly making policy changes that he said are "passenger friendly and are simple, commonsense decisions on United's part to help minimize the stress involved in the flying experience."
Munoz, meanwhile, will not be elevated to the role of United's chairman as previously expected this summer.
He said his company must move forward and do its best to ensure the half-million people it serves each day are flown to their destination safely.
Still, this latest blunder has imparted a valuable lesson, he added: "You forget sometimes that the people you're carrying are human."