Changing his tune from saying employees followed established protocol, United Airlines' chief Tuesday apologized for a "horrific event," referring to a 69-year-old doctor who was injured as security officers dragged him from an overbooked flight after he refused to give up his seat.
Amid scathing criticism of Sunday's debacle at O'Hare International Airport, United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement: "No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right." He promised a review of the blunder and to share the results by April 30.
The passenger, David Dao, remains in a Chicago hospital for treatment. His bloodied face caught on video sparked an outpouring of sympathy and the family offered thanks for the "prayers, concern and support they have received" in a statement by their lawyers.
Meanwhile, local lawmakers had sharp words for United Airlines. Suburban U.S. Reps Jan Schakowsky and Daniel Lipinski are considering legislation to prevent further such cases.
The situation "touched a nerve," Lipinski said. "Passengers feel they don't have any rights."
One Chicago Department of Aviation security officer was put on leave after Dao was hauled off Flight 3411 to Louisville, Kentucky, around 6 p.m. Sunday.
The Daily Mail reported Dao lives in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, but has a daughter, Crystal, living in Barrington. She could not be reached and attorneys said the family does not want to comment.
"Currently, they are focused only on Dr. Dao's medical care and treatment," said Chicago attorneys Stephen Golan of Golan Christie Taglia and Thomas Demetrio of Corboy & Demetrio in a statement.
Video posted on social media shows Dao screaming as officers pull him out of his window seat on the flight operated by United partner Republic Airways, at O'Hare.
The decision to remove the passenger was made by United Airlines gate agents after four Republic Airways crew members required seats on the full plane so they could operate another flight departing from Louisville.
A scuffle ensues as one officer grabs Dao, who begins yelling, the video shows. He is then dragged by his arms down the aisle, with his glasses askew and bruising or cuts around his nose and later with blood on his face.
On Monday, Munoz said in a letter to employees that "our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this."
On Tuesday, Munoz said in a public statement he shared the "outrage, anger, disappointment" of the public. "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."
Chicago police reported that Dao became irate and started yelling after being asked to leave the plane, at which point Chicago Department of Aviation security officers were called.
"Airlines can remove a passenger if they believe the passenger poses a threat to the flight," said aviation security expert Sheldon H. Jacobson, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor.
He noted that when people purchase a ticket with an airline, they are agreeing to a contract.
"One clause involves overbooking, and that the airline can deny anyone their seat, and provide appropriate compensation," he said.
At a rally Tuesday evening outside the United terminal, activists blasted the airlines and authorities for racial profiling.
Dao was "dragged out like an animal," said Inhe Choi, executive director of the Hana Center, which advocates for Korean-Americans and immigrants. The action reflects "a pattern of people of color being profiled. These aren't the friendly skies, they're the unacceptable skies," Choi said.
Others criticized aviation police for escalating a situation with no cause.
Dao wasn't "drunk, he wasn't violent," said Ahmed Rehab, of CAIR Chicago. "Yet he was subjected to the worst type of brutality."
Schakowsky, at the rally, promised legislation ending involuntary removals from airplanes and said she supports a congressional hearing.
"The word 'reservation' should mean reservation," the Evanston Democrat said. "We all stand with the victim who was violently taken off the airplane."
Lipinski, a member of the House Transportation Committee, is considering legislative amendments giving passengers more rights regarding the seats they purchase, because now "it's not guaranteed," he said.