The passenger dragged from his seat aboard a Sunday night flight at O’Hare International Airport took the first step toward potential legal action against United Airlines or the city on Wednesday.
David Dao, who has retained a high-powered personal injury lawyer, asked the Cook County Circuit Court for an order requiring United and the city of Chicago to keep all video, cockpit recordings and other reports from the flight, along with the personnel files of the Aviation Department officers who pulled Dao from the plane.
The request was filed a few hours before the Chicago Department of Aviation said it had placed two more officers on administrative leave until further notice as a result of the incident. Another employee already had been placed on leave, and the city said it continues to review the incident.
Early Wednesday, United CEO Oscar Munoz put a human face on the airline’s apology over the incident, saying in an interview with “Good Morning America” that he felt “shame” when watching viral videos of Dao being dragged down the plane’s aisle.
Munoz previously had addressed the incident in written statements on the airline’s website.
“This will never happen again on a United Airlines flight,” Munoz said on TV, apologizing to Dao, his family, passengers on that flight and United’s customers and employees. He said he took full responsibility for the situation but has no plans to resign.
Munoz had issued a statement Tuesday night apologizing for the incident, comments that came after United’s first apology had added more fuel to the backlash. Asked Wednesday why his initial remarks failed to mention that sense of shame, Munoz said he wanted to first “get the facts and circumstances,” but that his earlier remarks “fell short” of expressing what he felt.
Criticism of the incident and United’s initial response has included calls for Munoz’s resignation, but the United CEO said he’s not going anywhere. “I was hired to make United better, and we’ve been doing that. And that’s what I’ll continue to do,” he said.
Munoz also said he doesn’t think Dao was at fault in the incident. “He was a paying passenger sitting in our aircraft. No one should be treated that way,” he said.
Dao, who has retained lawyer Thomas Demetrio, was in a Chicago hospital undergoing treatment for his injuries Tuesday, according to a statement from Demetrio.
Demetrio has a long history of winning big settlements for his clients. He was one of the lead attorneys representing victims of a 2002 scaffolding accident at the John Hancock Center that injured seven and killed three women. The 10 victims collectively received $75 million in a settlement.
Demetrio also has represented former NFL and NHL players and their families in concussion litigation against the leagues, including the family of late Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. The Duerson family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL in 2012, which became part of a class-action case that resulted in a $1 billion settlement.
A spokeswoman for Demetrio’s firm said Dao and attorneys were not available to comment Wednesday.
Munoz also said United already has decided it will no longer call on law enforcement to remove passengers from oversold flights once on board.
“To remove a booked, paid, seating passenger, we can’t do that,” he said.
Marisa Eastwood, a United customer waiting for her sister’s flight to land Wednesday at O’Hare, said United’s response would make her think twice before flying the airline again.
“Obviously the damage to their reputation is done,” said Eastwood, of Barrington. “It didn’t feel very genuine, since it took so long for him to finally say the right thing.”
For Yusra Syed, a United passenger from the Houston area, the videos of Sunday’s incident left a bad taste in her mouth. But it was her own run-in with an overbooked flight — she got bumped — that put her over the edge with the airline Wednesday morning.
“I really thought they were kidding when they said the flight was full,” said Syed, 32. “I probably am going to think twice before I fly United now, because my whole day got wasted.”
But Matt Tompkins, a member of Detroit-based rock band Electric Six, said shunning United seems like an overreaction to the incident.
“It was a pretty rough way to handle somebody ... (but) that could happen to you anywhere,” said Tompkins, who was waiting for a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Germany. “Traveling sucks no matter how you do it.”
Munoz said the airline needs to give its employees more latitude to be flexible in trying to resolve situations like the one on the Sunday flight without resorting to calling in law enforcement.
Munoz on Tuesday promised a thorough review of United’s policies for handling situations where it has sold more tickets than seats available, including how it offers incentives to customers to take a later flight, and how United works with airport authorities and local law enforcement.
The airline also has compensated the 70 passengers on Dao’s flight for the value of their tickets, said United spokesman Charlie Hobart.
Dao was one of four passengers involuntarily bumped from a United Express flight from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., after airline employees failed to find volunteers willing to switch to a later flight. When Dao repeatedly refused to leave his seat, employees called in security personnel from the city’s Aviation Department, who dragged him off the aircraft.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, said she plans to introduce legislation that would bar airlines from involuntarily bumping passengers from overbooked flights and require airlines to seek volunteers to switch to later flights before boarding.
“If an airline chooses to oversell a flight, or has to accommodate their crew on a fully booked flight, it is their responsibility to keep raising their offer until a customer chooses to give up their seat,” Schakowsky said in a news release Wednesday.
Currently, airlines have to try to find volunteers before involuntarily bumping passengers, and typically do offer compensation. If they can’t find volunteers, any passenger moved to a later flight is compensated based on the price of their ticket and the length of their delay, up to a maximum of $1,350.
United already has ways to incentivize people to volunteer that work pretty well at the gate, Munoz said.
More than 90 percent of passengers bumped from a flight on a major U.S. airline last year volunteered, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But once passengers are in their seats, “that incentive program needs to change,” Munoz said. “We need to expand and adjust those policies to allow common sense.”
United did not plan to make Munoz available for additional interviews Wednesday, Hobart said.
In a Tuesday blog post, PRWeek U.S. Editor-in-Chief Steve Barrett panned the airline’s initial response as “tone-deaf” and expressed second thoughts about the decision to give Munoz a Communicator of the Year award just last month.
“It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz,” Barrett wrote.