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Amid one of the worst public relations disasters in United Airlines’ history, CEO Oscar Munoz said the incident in Chicago represented a system failure and pledged the airline won’t use law enforcement to remove booked, paid and seated passengers from aircraft in the future.
Munoz sat down with ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis Wednesday in Chicago and part of the interview appeared on Good Morning America. This was Munoz’s first interview since the incident on Sunday (watch the interview below).
Had United employees been more empowered to use their common sense, the incident could have been prevented, Munoz said. “We have not provided our frontline supervisors and managers and individuals with the proper tools, policies and procedures that allow them to use their common sense,” he said. “They all have an incredible amount of common sense and this issue could have been solved by that. That’s on me, I have to fix that and I think that’s something we can do.”
Munoz issued another apology about the incident after initially downplaying it earlier in the week. “My initial words fell short of expressing something that we were truly feeling and that’s something that I’ve learned from. I do look forward to a time as much as I am able to apologize directly to him [Dr. David Dao] for what’s happened.”
Asked what the doctor deserves in the aftermath of the incident, Munoz said, “Certainly an apology and from that point on we’ll have to see.”
The incident, which involved passenger Dao being dragged off a plane by law enforcement when he refused to give up his seat for United employees who needed to get in place to staff another flight, has prompted a “deep and thorough review of a lot of our policies that support this,” Munoz said.
“Specifically, the use of law enforcement aboard an aircraft has to be looked at very carefully,” he said. “They’re clearly there for a purpose of safety and we want to make sure they protect us. But for other reasons, I think that’s a policy we must absolutely look at.”
Later in the interview, Munoz said United would not use law enforcement officers to remove booked and seated passengers, noting that cops should be reserved for safety issues. “We are not going to put a law enforcement official onto a plane … to remove a booked, paid, seated passenger; we can’t do that,” he said. “This will never happen again.”
When asked why it took Munoz nearly three days after the incident to appear more apologetic, he said his first reaction is to understand the facts and circumstances. “It’s not so much what I thought as what I felt, probably the word ashamed comes to mind,” he said. “That is not who our family at United is. You saw us at a bad moment and this can and will never happen on a United Airlines flight. That’s my premise and that’s my promise.”
Social media is a crux and a curse for brands and in United’s case this week, it’s been both. “The tough part is because of social, because the public wants things so quickly, brands feel pressured to respond but sometimes you need to resist that, said David Pierpont, vice president of social media at Ansira, a U.S. marketing agency that’s worked with clients such as Southwest Airlines on branding.
“United could have initially said something like, ‘we need to take time to investigate this from all possible angles, we’re looking into this,'” said Pierpont. “They ended up in the right place. That’s the tough part, getting that statement out there and not walking back anything else that was a fast reaction which is what basically happened in this case.”
United had already put itself on the path towards redemption before Sunday’s incident after a scandal with its former CEO and other issues but Pierpont believes the coming weeks and months could be a positive and transformative moment for the airline. “But they’ll have to build a communications plan,” he said. “Right now people are angry so this will take time. They’ll have to work at putting things out there one thing at a time, first on social and then maybe on a micro site.”
Overhauling an airline’s reputation is no small feat even without a public relations disaster that echoes around the world. “You’ll always have some level of folks who you can never make happy, you have to be able to resist that and then know when you should engage in an honest conversation you can learn from,” said Pierpont.
Timing and messaging have equal importance in times of crisis, something all airlines can learn from United’s response, said Matt Rizzetta, CEO of N6A, a communications and branding agency based in New York City. “This is where a lot of brands make a misstep,” said Rizzetta. “In United’s case, the timing was lightning quick, but they missed the mark on messaging, and it wasn’t until their second statement that they started to take steps to show empathy and contrition for their customers.”
Besides reevaluating law enforcement on aircraft, United will also look at its incentive program when flights are overbooked. “There is an incentive program that works pretty well outside of the gate,” said Munoz. “Clearly, when you get into an airplane and you’re boarded and seated your incentive model needs to change and I think that’s one of the policies that we’ll look at. We do empower our frontline folks to a degree.”
Munoz said he hasn’t spoken directly to the doctor who was dragged off the plane but said United has attempted to contact him several times and insisted the passenger isn’t at fault and that “no one should be treated like that, period.”
Resigning from his CEO role isn’t something Munoz has considered because of this incident, he said. “I was hired to make United better and we’ve been doing that and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” he said.
United is conducting an internal review of the incident and its policies, and the airline has said it will release the results of its review by April 30.