Munoz’s apology may not be enough

Let’s start with today’s good news for United. The CEO issued a full apology for the awful bumped-then-dragged passenger incident, took full responsibility and promised a full review of the company’s crew transport and over-booking procedures.

That apology, in which Oscar Munoz calls the incident “truly horrific”, is appropriate and goes some way to helping United begin to claw its way out of this enormously damaging public relations disaster.

But there’s still far more bad news than good for United this week and worrying questions remain. Why was this full apology so late in coming, two days after the event? And why only after an email to employees was issued, which Munoz and his leadership team surely knew would be leaked, that seems to say the over-sold flight incident was properly handled and United employees are doing a great job?

The CEO of any company has a responsibility to his or her employees to motivate them, but there’s a time and a place. This was not the time. The CEO of a large, publicly-traded company like United also has a responsibility to its shareholders. Munoz clearly failed its investors this week as stocks took an inevitable dip. And the CEO of a service industry has a responsibility to its customers; until this afternoon’s deep but belated apology, Munoz failed them also. But most disturbingly, anyone who operates in a leader role has a moral obligation to treat people with respect and not condone violence unless it was provoked by violence. You may or may not agree with this passenger’s refusal to be bumped off his Sunday night flight (personally, I’d have protested too), but there’s no evidence he physically harmed anyone – he simply tried to hold on to his seat – while there is evidence he was assaulted. All so that a United employee could take his seat?

So Munoz was right when he said today that “no one should ever be mistreated this way”.  He just should have said it much earlier.

There are some who say that the passenger deserved what happened because passenger carriage contract rules permit airlines to oversell flights and bump customers. And they also point to US federal laws that compel a passenger to abide by all crew instructions; this man, they argue, broke the law when he refused to give up his seat.

But that’s a very dangerous path to pursue and one that could do far more harm for the wider airline industry than good. While bumping passengers may sometimes be unavoidable, does this industry really want to open up the can of worms that exposes the fact that airlines bump fare-paying customers to seat their own personnel?

Already US commerce and transport senators are demanding a full explanation from United about this incident and the company’s procedures.  Lawmakers won’t stop at United – they will want to examine all US airline customer-service practices and may inflict remedies far more costly to the airlines, just as they did with the tarmac delay rules.

Nor should United attempt to hide behind crew instruction compliance laws. Those are there for good reason, to ensure the safety of passengers and crew and to provide some legal power against those who might endanger flights through smoking, assaulting a crew member, trying to enter the cockpit, blocking an exit or something similar. There is no evidence that the passenger in this incident tried to endanger anyone; he simply tried to hang on to his seat.

And that’s what Munoz will now will be doing for the rest of this week.


Karen Walker