Videos of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged from his seat on a Sunday overbooked flight at O’Hare International Airport have been viewed more than 1 million times, and the airline’s CEO on Monday called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”
“I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement Monday. Munoz said the airline is trying to reach the passenger to “further address and resolve this situation.”
In videos of the incident aboard a flight bound for Louisville, Ky., a man screams as security officers pull him from his seat. He then falls silent as they drag him by the hands, with his glasses askew and his shirt pulled up over his abdomen, down the aisle. Several passengers yell at the officers. “Oh my God, look at what you did to him,” one woman yells.
Another passenger on the flight, Audra Bridges, that United asked for a volunteer at the gate to take a later flight, offering $400 and a hotel stay. Bridges, of Louisville, told the Courier-Journal that passengers were then allowed to board the flight.
Once the flight was boarded, passengers were told four people needed to give up their seats for stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville for a Monday flight and the plane wouldn’t depart until they had volunteers, Bridges said. United increased the offer to $800, but no one volunteered.
Bridges told the Courier-Journal that passengers were then told a computer would select four random passengers. A couple was selected and left, but when the man who was removed was selected, he contested, saying he was a doctor who needed to see patients Monday morning. Bridges posted a video of the incident on Facebook, which has been shared more than 12,000 times and viewed 1 million times.
The man was warned that security would be called if he didn’t leave, Bridges said. After security personnel came and spoke with him, he still refused.
After he was removed from the plane, Bridges told the newspaper the man reboarded the aircraft. Bridges’ husband, Tyler, posted a video on Twitter showing the man, who United has not identified, hurrying down the aisle, saying repeatedly, “I have to go home. I have to go home.”
“After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate,” United spokesman Charlie Hobart said in the statement. “We apologize for the overbook situation.”
Airlines bump passengers off overbooked flights all the time, but it’s rare for them to do so after passengers are already in their seats, said Brian Sumers, airline business reporter at travel industry website Skift.
“If you do it by the gate, you may make someone very upset, but you’re never going to get in a situation where you need to forcibly remove them,” Sumers said.
It’s also unusual that United was unable to find passengers willing to give up their seats in exchange for the travel vouchers.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt questioned why United didn’t simply offer a larger sum.
“Everybody has their price. If they had allowed the agent to offer a higher incentive, we may never have heard about this,” said Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
Hobart said United tries to come up with a reasonable compensation offer, but “there comes a point where you’re not going to get volunteers.”
At that point, United’s contract of carriage says the airline can select passengers to bump to a later flight, based on a priority system that can take into account how much passengers paid, how often they fly, whether missing that flight could affect a connecting flight and how early they checked in. People with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are generally last to be bumped.
Usually, passengers — however angry — comply with the airline’s orders. But even if it’s an unusual situation, it raises questions about what rights passengers have when being removed from a flight against their will, Harteveldt said.
“I think United is going to have to take a look at how it handles involuntarily denied boarding when passengers are already on the plane,” he said.
Even if United was following all its policies to the letter, the situation calls for some flexibility in offering extra compensation or considering moving to the next name on the list when a passenger flat-out refuses to budge, he said.
More to come.