CHICAGO - Video of police officers dragging a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight sparked an uproar Monday on social media, and a spokesman for the airline insisted that employees had no choice but to contact authorities to remove the man.
As the flight waited to depart from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, officers could be seen grabbing the screaming man from a window seat, pulling him across the armrest and dragging him down the aisle by his arms. United was trying to make room for four employees of a partner
airline on the Sunday evening flight to Louisville, Kentucky.
Other passengers on Flight 3411 are heard saying, "Please, my God," "What are you doing?" "This is wrong," "Look at what you did to him" and "Busted his lip."
Passenger Audra D. Bridges posted the video on Facebook. Her husband, Tyler Bridges, said United offered $400 and then $800 vouchers and a hotel stay for volunteers to give up their seats. When no one volunteered, a United manager came on the plane and announced that passengers would be chosen at random.
"We almost felt like we were being taken hostage," Tyler Bridges said. "We were stuck there. You can't do anything as a traveler. You're relying on the airline."
When airline employees named four customers who had to leave the plane, three of them did so. The fourth person refused to move, and police were called, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said.
"We followed the right procedures," Hobart told the Associated Press in a phone interview. "That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations."
Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines' parent company, described the event as "upsetting" and apologized for "having to re-accommodate these customers." He said the airline was conducting a review and reaching out to the passenger to "further address and resolve this situation."
The passenger told the manager that he was a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning, Bridges said.
"He was kind of saying that he was being singled out because he's a Chinese man" when speaking to the manager, who was African-American, Bridges said.
"You should know what this is like," the man said, according to Bridges.
The AP was unable to confirm the passenger's identity.
Two officers tried to reason with the man before a third came aboard and pointed at the man "basically saying, 'Sir, you have to get off the plane,' " Bridges said. That's when the altercation happened.
One officer involved has been placed on leave, the Chicago Aviation Department said Monday.
After the passenger was removed, the four airline employees boarded the plane.
"People on the plane were letting them have it," Bridges said. "They were saying, 'You should be ashamed to work for this company.' "
Hobart said the employees worked for Republic Airline, which United hires to operate United Express flights, and needed to get to Kentucky or their later flights would be canceled for lack of crew members. He could not explain why gate agents allowed passengers to board the plane before seeking volunteers to give up seats or bumping passengers.
A few minutes after the employees boarded, the man who was removed returned, looking dazed and saying he had to get home, Bridges said.
In a video, the man can be seen standing in the aisle near what appears to be the rear of the aircraft. Blood is on his mouth, chin and cheek as he said, "I want to go home."
Officers followed him to the back of the plane. Another man traveling with high school students stood up at that point and said they were getting off the plane, Bridges said.
About half of the passengers followed before United told everyone to get off, he said.
The man who was originally dragged down the aisle was removed from the plane again, and United employees made an announcement saying they had to "tidy up" the aircraft, Bridges said.
Bridges' wife told him she saw the man taken away on a stretcher, he said.
After a three-hour delay the flight took off without the man aboard, Bridges said. A United employee apologized to passengers, he said.
Airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, and they routinely overbook flights because some people do not show up.
It's not unusual for airlines to offer travel vouchers to encourage people to give up their seats, and there are no rules for the process. When an airline demands that a passenger give up a seat, the airline is required to pay compensation of double the passenger's one-way fare, up to $675, if the passenger can be placed on another flight that arrives one to two hours later than the first flight, or four times the ticket price, up to $1,350, for longer delays.
When they bump passengers, airlines are required to give those passengers a written description of their compensation rights.
Hobart declined to say how the airline compensated the passengers who were forced to leave the plane, saying he did not have those details from employees on the scene.
Bridges said United should not have boarded the flight if it was overbooked.
"The man handled it wrong," he said. "The police were kind of put in a bad spot. There's a lot of ways United could have handled it, and that was not one of the good ways."