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United Continental air planes at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, US, on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg
United Continental air planes at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, US, on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg

United Airlines to reimburse all passengers on flight that caused uproar

United Airlines steps up effort to get back consumers' good graces in the backdrop of brouhaha over a flyer being removed by security officers in the flight

Atlanta/Dallas: United Continental Holdings Inc. is reimbursing all passengers on the flight in which a man was forcibly removed by security officers, attempting to make peace in a public-relations mess that refuses to die.

The refund follows an extraordinary several days for the airline after video posted to social media showed the customer being pulled from his seat and dragged down the aisle of a plane after refusing to give up his spot.

Rarely has an airline—or any company—faced the kind of global condemnation that has buffeted United. After the blunder of the initial incident on Sunday was compounded by one botched response after another, the Chicago-based carrier is stepping up the effort to get back in consumers’ good graces.

“They are trying to get some positive PR after their consistent horrendous failures on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-industry consulting firm. “Will it get the goodwill United wants? It’s doubtful, but it will help."

Chief executive officer Oscar Munoz’s initial comments made the company a punch line on social media as far away as China and sparked criticism from US politicians. It wasn’t until Tuesday that Munoz was more contrite. “No one should ever be mistreated this way," he said.

‘Smart thing’

Reimbursing all the passengers on Flight 3411 “is a smart thing to do," Harteveldt said. Compensating everyone on a flight usually happens when a plane is delayed significantly on a tarmac, he said.

It’s impossible to say how much reimbursing the 70 passengers on the Louisville, Kentucky-to-Chicago flight will cost until United offers details on the form of compensation. Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the carrier, declined to say if it would be in cash, frequent-flier miles or other forms.

Delta Air Lines Inc. in November refunded passengers on a flight who were subjected to another passenger’s inflammatory comments aimed at women who supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Horrible stumble

Bruce Hicks, a public-relations consultant for carriers, said his former employer, Continental Airlines, once reimbursed all passengers for a flight that involved long delays and poor customer service. He speculated that Munoz may not have had all the facts when he made his comments the first couple of days.

Otherwise, “he wouldn’t have stumbled so horribly," Hicks said.

The reimbursement and Munoz’s apology Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America," in which the CEO came across as sincere, helped the airline’s cause, Hicks said. He said he doesn’t expect the fiasco will inflict long-term damage on United, partly because airline mergers have left little competition on some routes and since frequent-flier programs cement ties to travellers.

Dao was treated in a Chicago hospital for his injuries, according to a statement from lawyers who said they represent him. The lawyers sought a court order Wednesday in Chicago to preserve evidence, including surveillance videos, crew lists and other information, that could be used in litigation. A lawsuit hasn’t been filed.

The Chicago department of aviation on Wednesday put two more officers on leave amid its review of Flight 3411. The agency put one officer on leave Monday. Bloomberg

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