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United passenger treated for injuries, Senate committee leaders ask for answers

Last Updated Apr 11, 2017 at 10:26 pm EST

An attorney who represents the man who was forcibly removed from a United Express flight says his client is being treated at a Chicago hospital for injuries he sustained in the incident.
Chicago attorney Stephen L. Golan says David Dao’s family is “focused only on Dr. Dao’s medical care and treatment.” He says the family “wants the world to know that they are very appreciative of the outpouring of prayers, concern and support they have received.”

The 69-year-old from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, refused to leave the flight, saying he needed to get home to treat patients.

Dao was convicted in 2004 of several counts of obtaining drugs by fraud or deceit and was placed on five years of supervised probation and surrendered his medical license, which he got back in 2015.

Leaders of a key Senate committee have asked United Airlines and Chicago airport authorities to explain what led to Dao’s forced removal Sunday night from a United Express flight.

United’s explanation “has been unsatisfactory, and appears to underestimate the public anger about this incident,” four senators wrote in letters Tuesday to United CEO Oscar Munoz and Ginger Evans, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

“The last thing a paying airline passenger should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding, especially one that could likely have been avoided,” they said.

The senators directed most of their questions at Munoz, including queries about the airline’s policy for bumping passengers off oversold flights, and whether it makes a difference that passengers have already boarded the plane, as happened on the United Express plane in Chicago.

The senators said the incident could have been prevented with better communication or “additional incentives” – an apparent suggestion that United didn’t offer passengers enough compensation to voluntarily give up their seats.

The letter was signed by the four top-ranking members of the Senate commerce committee – the Republican chairman, John Thune, the Republican aviation subcommittee chairman, Roy Blunt, and the two senior Democrats, Bill Nelson of Florida and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he has asked the Trump administration to suspend regulations that allow airlines to overbook flights.

Christie, a Republican, sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Tuesday, citing a passenger who was dragged off a United Express flight in Chicago on Sunday.

Christie called the practice of “bumping” passengers off flights “unconscionable.”

United is a dominant carrier at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.

Meanwhile, the CEO of United Airlines has issued a stronger apology about the passenger, calling the confrontation “truly horrific.”

Oscar Munoz said in a note to employees Tuesday that he continues to be disturbed by the events Sunday night in Chicago. He said, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Munoz was widely criticized for two statements Monday about the altercation in which he described the 69-year-old man taken off the plane as “disruptive and belligerent.”

On Tuesday, Munoz said he was committed to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.” He pledged to review the company’s policies for seeking volunteers to give up their seats, for handling oversold flights and for partnering with airport authorities and local law enforcement.

The company plans to share results of the review by April 30, 2017.

In a letter to employees Monday evening, Oscar Munoz said he was “upset to see and hear about what happened.” He added, however, that the man dragged off the plane had ignored requests by crew members to leave and became “disruptive and belligerent,” making it necessary to call airport police.

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” Munoz told employees. “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.”

Munoz said that the airline might learn from the experience, and it was continuing to look into the incident.

Earlier on Monday Chicago’s aviation department said one of its police officers involved in dragging a man off a United Airlines flight at O’Hare International Airport did not follow standard operating procedures and has been placed on leave.

The department said in a brief statement Monday it did not condone the aviation security officers’ actions Sunday night.

The statement did not release the officer’s name and it was not immediately clear which of the three men seen in the now-widely seen video taken by another passenger which one was placed on leave.

United has said that the incident came after the flight to Louisville, Kentucky, was overbooked and airline officials asked for volunteers to get off the plane. When none of them did, the airline told four passengers who were selected at random that they had to get off the plane. Three of them did but the fourth refused. United called the airport police, who came aboard the plane and dragged him away.

Video of the incident sparked an uproar on social media, and a spokesman for the airline insisted that employees had no choice but to contact authorities to remove the man.

As the flight waited to depart from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, officers could be seen grabbing the screaming man from a window seat, pulling him across the armrest and dragging him down the aisle by his arms. The airline was trying to make room for four of its employees on the Sunday evening flight to Louisville, Kentucky.

Other passengers on Flight 3411 are heard saying, “Please, my God,” “What are you doing?” “This is wrong,” “Look at what you did to him” and “Busted his lip.”

Passenger Audra D. Bridges posted the video on Facebook. Her husband, Tyler Bridges, said United offered $400 and then $800 vouchers and a hotel stay for volunteers to give up their seats. When no one volunteered, a United manager came on the plane and announced that passengers would be chosen at random.

“We almost felt like we were being taken hostage,” Tyler Bridges said. “We were stuck there. You can’t do anything as a traveler. You’re relying on the airline.”

When airline employees named four customers who had to leave the plane, three of them did so. The fourth person refused to move, and police were called, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said.

“We followed the right procedures,” Hobart told the Associated Press in a phone interview. “That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations.”

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines’ parent company, described the event as “upsetting” and apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers.” He said the airline was conducting a review and reaching out to the passenger to “further address and resolve this situation.”

The passenger told the manager that he was a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning, Bridges said.

“He was kind of saying that he was being singled out because he’s a Chinese man” when speaking to the manager, who was African-American, Bridges said. “You should know what this is like,” the man said, according to Bridges. The Associated Press was unable to confirm the passenger’s identity.

Two officers tried to reason with the man before a third came aboard and pointed at the man “basically saying, ‘Sir, you have to get off the plane,”’ Bridges said. That’s when the altercation happened.

One officer involved has been placed on leave, the Chicago Aviation Department said Monday. After the passenger was removed, the four United employees boarded the plane.

“People on the plane were letting them have it,” Bridges said. “They were saying, ‘You should be ashamed to work for this company.”’

A few minutes later, the man who was removed from the plane returned, looking dazed and saying he had to get home, Bridges said. Officers followed him to the back of the plane.

Another man travelling with high school students stood up at that point and said they were getting off the plane, Bridges said. About half of the passengers followed before United told everyone to get off, he said.

The man who was originally dragged down the aisle was removed from the plane again, and United employees made an announcement saying they had to “tidy up” the aircraft, Bridges said. Bridges’ wife told him she saw the man taken away on a stretcher, he said.

After a three-hour delay the flight took off without the man aboard, Bridges said. A United employee apologized to passengers, he said.

Airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, and they routinely overbook flights because some people do not show up.

It’s not unusual for airlines to offer travel vouchers to encourage people to give up their seats, and there are no rules for the process. When an airline demands that a passenger give up a seat, the airline is required to pay compensation of double the passenger’s one-way fare, up to $675, if the passenger can be placed on another flight that arrives one to two hours later than the first flight, or four times the ticket price, up to $1,350, for longer delays.

When they bump passengers, airlines are required to give those passengers a written description of their compensation rights.

Hobart declined to say how the airline compensated the passengers who were forced to leave the plane, saying he did not have those details from employees on the scene.

Last year, United forced 3,765 people off oversold flights and another 62,895 United passengers volunteered to give up their seats, probably in exchange for travel vouchers. That’s out of more than 86 million people who boarded a United flight in 2016, according to government figures.

United ranks in the middle of U.S. carriers when it comes to bumping passengers. ExpressJet, which operates flights under the United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection names, had the highest rate of bumping passengers last year. Among the largest carriers, Southwest Airlines had the highest rate, followed by JetBlue Airways.
Bridges said United should not have boarded the flight if it was overbooked.

“The man handled it wrong,” he said. “The police were kind of put in a bad spot. There’s a lot of ways United could have handled it, and that was not one of the good ways.”