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Angry passengers prompting airline CEOs to learn to say sorry

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Feeling the heat from customer complaints amplified by social media, airline executives meeting in Mexico this week said they need to apologize and explain more quickly when things go wrong.

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In the past few months, United Airlines UAL.N has been criticized after authorities dragged a passenger from an overbooked flight, and British Airways came under fire after an IT meltdown left thousands stranded on a holiday weekend.

In both instances, customers took to social media to attack the airlines, with a video of the United passenger being dragged from his seat going viral.

Malaysia Airlines CEO Peter Bellew said during a panel session with other CEOs that they had “15 minutes or less to say sorry.”

Last week a Malaysia Airlines flight departing from Melbourne had to turn back after a passenger suffering mental health issues attempted to enter the cockpit.

“We had the first statement out within 14 minutes from the minute I heard about it in the sky,” Bellew said. He said that with passengers live streaming the events from their phones and the proliferation of fake news, it was crucial to react fast.

United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz said he had not apologized quickly enough after 69-year-old passenger David Dao was dragged from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when he refused to give up his seat to make room for crew members.

“The initial focus for me should have been to do what I did a few hours later and apologize,” he said.

However, he rejected Bellew’s suggestion that 15 minutes was the cut-off point, saying there was more time than that and it was important to establish facts first

“Airlines typically want to recoil but they would do better to get out there and face it head on,” said independent aviation consultant John Strickland. “They need to explain what happened and how they’re handling it.”

British Airways came under fire from customers on social media for slow responses to stranded passengers. Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways-parent IAG ICAG.L, admitted the airline communicated poorly with its recent computer snafu. "...We will learn from that and will share it with anyone who is prepared to listen," he said.

Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman