How did United Airlines’ startling passenger confrontation happen?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The international uproar continued over the forced removal of a passenger from a United Airlines flight.

Today, the airline's CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued an apology, saying — quote — "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."

Along with the outrage, many were asking, how could this happen?

Our Jeffrey Brown picks up the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, by now, the video has been watched hundreds of millions of times, including more than 270 million on social media in China, where many wondered if the passenger had been singled out because he is of Asian descent.

The cell phone video shows a bloodied man identified as Dr. David Dao being pulled from his seat on a plane set to depart from Chicago on Sunday night. The flight was sold out, and passengers were first offered vouchers to take another flight, so members of a United crew could board. When that didn't work, Dao and three other passengers were asked to leave.

Questions remain about what happened, and what's supposed to happen in a situation like this.

Ben Mutzabaugh is covering it for USA Today, and joins me now.

And welcome to you.

BEN MUTZABAUGH, USA Today: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that was clarified today was that the flight was actually not overbooked, but oversold, right, sold out?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right. That's correct.

So, it won't move the needle a whole lot, given the video that we saw, but what technically happened was, the plane was full. United had four employees of their affiliate Republic Airlines that needed to make it to Louisville so more flights didn't end up getting canceled down the line.

They had to make space for them. They needed four volunteers. Three were OK with being voluntarily kicked off the plane. One wasn't, and here we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as we heard, the CEO, Munoz, gave an apology today, after huge criticism for not apologizing sufficiently up to this point.

This is a — this is a mess for United, right?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: This has really, really spiraled out of control.

And I think the apology today was probably helpful. It certainly sounded more sincere than the one that we got yesterday. And it also came after the internal memo that pretty much said employees had done things the right way.

And even if that's true, you can't see that video and have that go over well with what you hear. They are facing a full-fledged, all-out public relations crisis at a time when they're really trying to change the perception of the airline.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, everybody watching this, everybody who flies is wondering, what kind of rules apply or should apply in a case like this?

So, it's very common these days that flights are overbooked, right? That's the way the airlines operate. What rules apply?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: So, the government says airlines can overbook flights. They can sell more seats than there are on the plane. They have to inform you of your rights, and then they have the call for volunteers.

Now, if that doesn't happen, the airlines can remove passengers based on a list of criteria. The only thing the government really requires in the scenario is for the airlines to inform passengers of their rights and to get a written copy of the rules, which basically list the criteria that they will use to choose people to leave the flight.

And they set compensation levels that pretty much top out, if you get to a domestic destination more than two hours late, you will get 400 percent of your one-way ticket for that flight or a maximum of $1,350.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but it if comes to that, where they really need — first of all, they offer the vouchers we're all familiar with, right, try to lure people to take…

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right, yes, start at $200, go to $300, and keep raising.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. And in this case, I understand United was offering up to $1,000 to get people to…

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Definitely $800.

We have seen some reports — there are so many — watching this spiral out of control, it's amazing to see all the stories that have surfaced on social media, which is probably part of the problem for United.

But, yes, they offered $800, $1,000. No takers, until they got to the last four. And then they just couldn't — should have raised it more perhaps.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, when it gets to this next stage where they are asking people to leave, do we know — you're saying every airline has its own criteria? How do they decide on who they're going to ask to get up and go?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: It's generally a combination of frequent flyer status, the fare paid, lowest fare paid.

The cynics will say that if you boot the person who paid the lowest fare, that the least amount of compensation you will owe them under the federal regulations on dumping about what you would owe them.

So it stands to reason you might bump passengers who have paid the lowest fare. Other things can include the last ones to check in. There is really a list of factors.

But perhaps — perhaps what makes this so troubling for the airlines, and especially in a situation like this, is that, although it's somewhat transparent, it's not completely transparent. You get a list of factors, but not a hard-and-fast checklist.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

And then if you want to — if you want to say no, as Dr. Dao does — did, do passengers have any rights to say no?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: They do not.

And this is where this particular situation, I think, really went off the rails. So, United probably, in my opinion, should have done more to entice him or someone else to get off the plane, because, once you turn this situation over to the authorities, you have got an airline that says you have to get off the plane, you have got a passenger who says, I'm not getting off the plane.

If you call authorities then, there is pretty much only one way that turns out. And that's what we saw in the video. Now, admittedly, that video turned out probably much worse than anyone would have anticipated.

But if they could have done anything and got Mr. Dao off the plane, this becomes a local — not even a local story in Louisville, and we're not talking about it today.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just in our last 30 seconds here, I mean, people still book mostly based on price and convenience, right?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much brand loyalty is there? How much lasting impact would you expect this to have?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: There are frequent flyers who will stick with an airline no matter what.

But what we have seen for the public at large, people who are infrequent flyers, no matter how big the scandal, no matter how big the crisis, no matter how poor the reputation, passengers have shown time and time again they will book the fare that's $199, instead of $200, no matter what.

Now, it remains to be — this has turned into a pretty big situation for United.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, this is unusual, right? This is not good attention for United.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: This will test that. Exactly.

This will test that. But the precedent says people will come back if the fares are lower.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. They will be watching carefully.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ben Mutzabaugh of USA Today, thank you very much.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Thank you.

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