United Airlines brought itself a world of hurt with its disastrous handling of a seat-shortage problem Sunday that led to an Asian-American passenger being beaten bloody and dragged, apparently unconscious, off a plane by security personnel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. A potentially costly lawsuit by the passenger is probably the least of United's worries. The self-inflicted public relations wounds could be catastrophic.
The airline's stock price took a nosedive Tuesday. In China, one of the airline's major markets, reaction has been volcanic, largely because the abused passenger was reported to be ethnically Chinese. Within 36 hours of Sunday night's incident, a video of the man being dragged off the Flight 3411 to Louisville, Ky., had been viewed more than 210 million times. Outraged viewers in China called for an international boycott.
United claims to offer more nonstop flights to China than any other airline. The airline cannot afford to put that lucrative market in jeopardy. Deft handling of this incident was an absolute requirement. United blew it badly.
In a statement, chief executive Oscar Munoz offered an Orwellian apology: "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers." He revised it Tuesday into a full-throated apology.
What's worse is the reason why the battered passenger and three others were forced off the flight. The airline said it had overbooked -- common in air travel -- and had offered up to $800 and a free night's hotel accommodation for passengers willing to give up their seats. None volunteered.
In desperation, the airline said four passengers were selected at random by computer and then ordered off -- but not to make room for other paying passengers. It was to clear seats so that four United employees could travel to Louisville as relief crew members for another flight. The airline later acknowledged there was never any overbooking.
The airline made a conscious decision to put its own operational priorities ahead of the needs and rights of its paying passengers. No matter how urgent it was for ticketed passengers to get to Louisville, United decided seats for its four employees were more important.
Equally incomprehensible was the airline's decision to board passengers before the overbooking problem had been resolved. It's far easier to deny entry when passengers are in the waiting area than when they're already buckled into their seats.
Various news reports identified the battered passenger as David Dao, a Louisville physician. Witnesses quoted him as saying that he needed to return to Louisville Sunday night because he had appointments with patients on Monday morning.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Dao had been in legal trouble from drug-related offenses more than a decade ago. His past should have no bearing on the appalling way he was treated Sunday night.
This is one case where the airline deserves all the rough re-accommodation customers can bestow upon it.