United promises to refocus on passengers


United Airlines set out to repair its image Thursday, with its chief executive promising to refocus on customers as the company announced changes following the infamous dragging incident that caused worldwide outrage.

The airline will now offer passengers up to $10,000 in compensation to be bumped off overbooked flights, and reduce overbooking in the first place.

Those and other changes, which the airline called "substantial," are the result of a two-week internal probe of the April 9 incident, video of which went viral.

Passenger David Dao was pulled from his seat and dragged off the full plane by airport security in Chicago to make room for airline crew.

The 69-year-old doctor suffered a concussion, and a broken nose and teeth, according to his lawyers.

In an interview Thursday with NBC News, United (Shenzhen: 000925.SZ - news) chief executive Oscar Munoz said the airline will refocus its business by "putting the customer at the center" and avoiding issues in which employees, passengers and law enforcement are placed in "impossible situations."

Video of Dao's ordeal captured by fellow Flight 3411 passengers -- which included images of the doctor bloodied -- triggered widespread indignation.

After initial missteps in which the company appeared to at least partially blame Dao, the carrier and Munoz apologized repeatedly and launched the internal review to find out what went wrong.

"We breached public trust, and it's a serious breach," Munoz told NBC News.

The carrier's report highlighted 10 changes, including increasing its cash enticement to $10,000, effective Friday, to get customers to voluntarily give up their seats on overbooked flights.

The crew on Flight 3411 had only offered $1,000, the report said.

- Modest changes -

United also pledged to reduce overbooking -- the practice of selling more tickets than seats on a plane to account for no-shows -- on certain flights "that historically have experienced lower volunteer rates," United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin told AFP.

Such flights include those that are the last of the day and on smaller planes, both of which were factors on Flight 3411.

Without enough volunteers to take later flights, airlines are forced to involuntarily "bump" passengers off overbooked flights.

"It is our goal to reduce involuntarily denied boarding to as close to zero as possible," Schmerin said.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly, said the changes announced Thursday will help improve United's image, but he characterized many of them as modest.

"Some of this is catching up with competitors," Kaplan said. "I don't think in the aggregate they're going to reduce overbooking dramatically."

Dao attorney Thomas Demetrio applauded United's move, calling the changes "passenger friendly."

"Dr Dao is proud, despite his ordeal, to have played a role in spearheading these announced changes. And going forward, he hopes United takes the lead in inspiring the entire airline industry to supply passengers the dignity, respect and fairness we all deserve," Demetrio said in a statement.

United was not the only airline to modify its practices, as the dragging incident and its aftermath reverberated throughout the industry.

United had already altered some policies, including no longer relying on law enforcement to deal with customer service issues.

In addition, United and American ended the practice of asking passengers already seated on planes to give up their seats.

And, Delta Airlines was first to raise to $10,000 the amount it would pay for volunteers to get off overbooked flights.