Travel

A passenger was violently removed from an overbooked flight. Now some are urging a boycott

Pictures and video of a bloodied man being dragged by police from a United Airlines flight spread across the Internet Monday, creating a firestorm of ill will toward the airline and focusing attention on the practice of bumping passengers off overbooked flights.

Tens of thousands took to social media Monday to call for a boycott of United and the firing of its CEO after the upsetting images of the man being dragged by his arms down the aisle went viral.

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The video shows the shrieking man forcibly removed from the plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Sunday night by police officers. The man and three other passengers were bumped from the flight so that United could fly four employees who were needed in Louisville the following day. The man, who was not identified, said he was a doctor who needed to fly home to see patients.

It is the second high-profile embarrassment for the airline in recent weeks, after it refused to let two girls board a flight in late March for wearing leggings. As of Monday evening, the hashtag #boycottunited was trending on social media, reflecting the rampant outrage.

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United was slow to offer an apology then appeared to apologize for the overbooking but not for the violent removal of the passenger. A spokesman referred to the incident as an “involuntary deboarding situation.’’

Monday afternoon, chief executive Oscar Munoz wrote on the airline’s Twitter account: “This is an upsetting incident for all of us at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

He added that the employees “followed established procedures.’’ The airline is also reaching out to the passenger.

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The Chicago Police Department said in the statement that the passenger’s head struck an armrest and that he was taken to Lutheran General Hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

One of the officers involved in removing the passenger was placed on leave Monday.

The incident occurred on Flight 3411, which was waiting to take off for Louisville. Audra Bridges, who said she was on the plane and posted video to Facebook, told the Louisville-based newspaper, the Courier-Journal, that the flight was overbooked by four people.

Bridges said passengers were allowed to board the flight but were later told that four people would need to give up their seats for United employees who were needed in Louisville on Monday. The airline was offering $400 and a hotel room for volunteers willing to take a flight the following day at 3 p.m.

When no one volunteered, an airline manager came aboard and said passengers would be randomly selected and asked to leave.

That’s when the trouble began.

In a series of tweets on Twitter, passenger Jayse Anspach, a student and trainer, narrated the scene.

“No one volunteered, so United choose for us. They choose an Asian doctor and his wife.”

“The doctor needed to work at the hospital the next day, so he refused to ‘volunteer.’ United decided to use force on the doctor.”

“A couple [of] airport security men forcibly pulled the doctor out of his chair and into the aisle.”

“10 mins later, the doctor runs back into the plane with a bloody face, clings to a post in the back, chanting, ‘I need to go home.’ ”

Later Monday, Munoz wrote United employees that “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.’’

He released a brief summary of the incident that said the passenger became “more and more disruptive and belligerent’’ when crew members attempted to persuade him to get off the airplane.

“Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave,’’ the summary said.

According to the US Department of Transportation, overbooking flights is not illegal, and most airlines oversell to compensate for no-shows. Airlines are allowed to set their own policy for the order in which they will bump categories of passengers. Airlines will usually bump people flying on the cheapest tickets because the required compensation will be lower.

United Airlines says that when deciding who gets bumped, it considers how long it will take for passengers to reach their destination on a later flight. It also says it won’t break up a family group and won’t bump minors who are traveling alone.

When the United flight finally took off two hours late, the four United employees were seated. Bridges said they were berated by passengers and told they should be ashamed.

United spokesman Charlie Hobart told the Associated Press: “We followed the right procedures. . . . That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations.”

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.

Last year, United forced 3,765 people off oversold flights, and another 62,895 United passengers volunteered to give up their seats, probably in exchange for travel vouchers.

United ranks in the middle of US carriers when it comes to bumping passengers. ExpressJet, which operates flights under the United Express, American Eagle, and Delta Connection names, had the highest rate of bumping passengers last year. Among the largest carriers, Southwest Airlines had the highest rate, followed by JetBlue Airways.

Professor John Banzhaf of the George Washington University Law School said he believes that the passenger has a very good case against the airline if he decides to bring a legal action and that the force used to remove the doctor may be considered excessive.

“In addition to the tort of simply removing a passenger even if the force to do so was reasonable, it might be argued that the force used here was excessive,” Banzhaf told the website LawNewz.com. “In other words, even if somehow the law permitted a passenger to be removed by force under these circumstances, it would appear that the force used here was excessive, and that the airline acquiesced in the use of that excessive force.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.
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