PRWeek "Communicator of the Year" and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz testified before Congress today in the latest chapter of the controversy swirling around David Dao, the 69-year-old passenger who was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight three weeks ago. Munoz, joined by United President Scott Kirby, apologized once again for the incident and took responsibility for his company's handling of its aftermath -- a chaotic period that will cost United a lot of money and resulted in a policy change on overbooking along with several other changes.
“We had a horrible failure three weeks ago,” he told Congress today. Along with his apology, he had to endure a combination of joking zingers, harsh excoriations, and tough questions from the nation's top lawmakers.
The hearing came at a time when United as well as other airlines have come under serious scrutiny for not just the Dao incident but others. Just last month headlines about American Airlines uniforms making employees sick, an American Airlines employee challenging a passenger to a fight, a scorpion stinging a man on a flight, and other incidents have cluttered up the news cycle.
“There will come a day when Americans won’t accept your apology,” Michael E. Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Munoz in the hearing before the House Transportation Committee that ran for more than four hours. He and his fellow committee members pointed to perceptions of the airline industry that customer interests come last, that customers don't understand their rights, as well as more mundane issues like seat sizes and an increase in delays. “We have a problem. It shouldn’t be as bad as it is.”
“Very few passengers have any idea what their rights are,” Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, pointed out, noting that 40,000 ticketed passengers had been bumped from overbooked flights last year, just like Dao was bumped last month.
Kirby came to Munoz and United's defense on issues like overbooking, while acknowledging that United had pledged to offer up to $10,000 in flight vouchers to overbooked customers. Munoz called the company's new, customer-first approach a "culture change."
“We called law enforcement when a safety or security issue did not exist,” Munoz explained in his apology. “We rebooked crew at the very last minute. We didn’t offer enough compensation or travel options to incentivize a passenger to give up a seat. And, most important, our employees did not have the authority to do what was right for our customers.”
Later in the hearing Robert Woodall, a Georgia Republican, quipped: "You know you’re having a bad day when the group that lectures you on customer service is Congress."