United Drags a Man Off the Plane

United tail
United tail

I'm not sure United thought this one through; people have cell phones. The airline needed to free up four seats so their employees could to get to Louisville. Attendants offered $400 and $800 but couldn't get people to relinquish their spots. Four people on the plane were approached; three left "without incident," as The New York Times reports.

United CEO
United CEO

But the fourth wouldn't budge. He said, "I'm not getting off the plane. I'm a doctor; I have to see patients in the morning." The Times reports the airline's perspective:

Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman, said in a telephone interview on Monday that "we had asked several times, politely," for the man to give up his seat before force was used.

"We had a customer who refused to leave the aircraft," he said. "We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there. "Since that customer refused to leave the aircraft, we had to call" the police, and they came on board, he said.

The man was removed by force, dragged down the aisle, and eventually carried out on a stretcher. A video shows the man, somehow, back on the plane, clearly upset, saying, "I have to go home." In this video, we see that his mouth is bleeding.

United issued a short statement from CEO Oscar Munoz on Twitter. Although Munoz apologizes for "re-accommodating" passengers, no public apologies have been made to the man or other passengers as yet.

UPDATE: Munoz issued a longer statement and, as NBC News tweeted, "found new words like 'disturbed' and 'horrific event'": 

"The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way."

Spokesperson Megan McCarthy also said, "We recognize that our response yesterday did not reflect the gravity of the situation," Ms. McCarthy said. "And for that we also apologize. Our focus now is looking ahead and making this right. Judging from a letter Munoz sent to his employees, he may have been supporting them, protecting them. But customers must come first in a situation like this. Meanwhile, the passenger, Dr. Dao, has hired lawyers, four senior senators wrote United a chastising letter, and the company has lost $255 million in value. What may be worse (or perhaps, all for the best) are grumblings about potential disruptors for the commercial airline industry.


  • What leadership lessons would you like to teach United's staff? What crisis communications lessons could they learn?
  • Where did the airline go wrong? Try to identify all steps in the process.
  • What's your view of the response so far? Should United say more?