First-class United passenger says airline threatened him with handcuffs

Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, finally got around to acknowledging the obvious on Tuesday, issuing a statement in the aftermath of Sunday evening’s abuse of a passenger who wouldn’t give up his seat in favor of a United employee.

“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,” Munoz said in his statement.

On Monday Munoz had praised the airline staff “for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

Maybe this wasn’t the isolated incident Munoz seems to suggest.

Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus writes this afternoon that a passenger a week ago was threatened with handcuffs if he didn’t give up his first-class seat to a “more important passenger.”

Geoff Fearns, 59, is no slouch himself when it comes to big money. He’s president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, with a half-billion dollars of real estate holdings.

He paid $1,000 for a first-class ticket from Hawaii to Los Angeles. But when the airline swapped out a plane with fewer first-class seats, Fearns was told he had to go sit in the back with the little people.

Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flyer program, gets the boot.

“I understand you might bump people because a flight is full,” Fearns said. “But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”

You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

It shouldn’t make any difference where a passenger is seated or how much he or she paid for their ticket. But you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of United putting the arm on a full-fare, first-class traveler. If there’s anybody whose business you want to safeguard and cultivate, it’s that person.

So how could United possibly make things worse? Not to worry. This is the airline that knows how to add insult to injury.

A United employee, responding to Fearns’ complaint that he shouldn’t have to miss the flight, compromised by downgrading him to economy class and placing him in the middle seat between a married couple who were in the midst of a nasty fight and refused to be seated next to each other.

“They argued the whole way back,” Fearns recalled. “Nearly six hours. It was a lot of fun.”

Lazarus reports Fearns wrote to Munoz when he got home, asking for a refund and suggesting the airline make a donation to charity.

The answer? No. To both. The airline offered to make up the difference in fare and give him a $500 voucher for a future trip.

Fearns says he’s done with United.

Related: United’s problem is its empty bank of goodwill. (Chicago Tribune)