After Initially Defending Staff, United Airlines Boss Apologizes for ‘Horrific Incident’

United Airlines protest
Community member protests the treatment of a passenger who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight on Sunday by the Chicago Aviation Police, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11. The airline's chief executive has apologized for the "horrific" incident. Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

The chief executive of United Airlines has issued another apology for an incident in which a passenger was injured when being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, after initially defending the company.

In a statement circulated on the company’s social media channels on Tuesday, Oscar Munoz offered “my deepest apologies” for the “truly horrific event” that occurred.

The incident occurred on Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday. A 69-year-old man of Asian descent was asked to disembark as the flight was overbooked, but refused to do so. The man said that he was a doctor and needed to get home to treat his patients.

United staff then requested the assistance of law enforcement and police officers dragged the man off the flight. Video footage showed the man screaming as he was pulled along the aisle of the plane. Another video showed the clearly-disturbed man back on the plane, with blood around his mouth and repeating, “Just kill me.” The man has been identified as David Dao of Kentucky, according to local news station WLKY.

In his first statement on Monday, Munoz apologized for having to “re-accommodate” the customer and said the company was reaching out to the passenger involved in the “upsetting event.”

But in a letter to United staff obtained by CNBC on Monday, Munoz said that staff had “followed established procedures” for dealing with overbooked flights and said that the passenger had become “disruptive and belligerent” after refusing to get off the plane.

“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,” said Munoz in the Tuesday statement.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again,” said Munoz. The chief executive added that the company would review its policies on dealing with overbooked flights and its partnerships with airport authorities and police.

The incident provoked widespread condemnation. Chinese social media users accused the airline of racism, while hashtags such as #BoycottUnitedAirlines and #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto were widely shared.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the airline’s handling of the incident was “troubling.”

“I don’t think anyone looks at that video and isn’t a little disturbed that another human being is being treated that way,” said Spicer on Tuesday.

The company’s stocks fell by more than 1 percent overnight and is down around 3 percent for the year, ABC News reported.

United also suffered a PR blow in March over an incident in which the airline prevented two teenage girls who were wearing leggings from boarding a flight. The airline said that the girls were guests of United employees and so were subject to a clothing policy, but the incident sparked widespread mockery and accusations of sexism on social media.