United Airlines's fiasco prompts apology, suspension; officer is put on leave

USA TODAY - An overbooked United Airlines flight to Louisville has become infamous after videos of a man being dragged from his seat to make room for airline employees went viral, prompting a public apology from the company's CEO.

Louisville resident Audra Bridges posted a video of the incident online Sunday evening, which shows three security officers speaking to an unidentified passenger on United Express Flight 3411, which hadn't left O'Hare International Airport in Chicago yet. Then, one of the men grabs the passenger, who screams as he is yanked out of his seat and pulled down the aisle. That clip, as well as other videos from the flight, were posted on social media and racked up millions of views Monday as the story made national headlines.

The man pulled off the United flight is David Dao, according to a source with direct knowledge of the passenger's identity who asked to remain unnamed because they are not authorized to speak about the incident.

By Monday afternoon, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz had issued an apologetic statement about this "upsetting event" and the officer who dragged the man off the plane had been placed on leave.

"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," Munoz said. "We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."

Bridges said United offered passengers on Sunday's overbooked flight up to $800 in compensation if they agreed to take a different plane to Louisville. After they boarded the flight, Bridges said she and her fellow passengers were told that four people would be selected to leave since no one volunteered.

The man in the video was one of the four chosen, Bridges said, but he became "very upset" and said he was a doctor who needed to meet with patients the next morning. When he did not leave willingly, security officers came and he was forcibly removed from the plane.

The man managed to get back on the flight after that, Bridges said. She said his face was bloody and he seemed disoriented. Another video that was shared on social media appeared to show the same man who was dragged off the flight rushing to the back of the plane and repeatedly saying, "I have to go home."

"Everyone was shocked and appalled," Bridges told the Courier-Journal in a Facebook message. "There were several children on the flight as well that were very upset."

United spokeswoman Erin Benson said four crew members needed seats on the plane so they could catch another flight in Louisville. If they weren't able to get to Louisville, Benson said there could have been a "domino effect" that impacted other customers because another United flight was in danger of being canceled.

United partners with other companies for some regional flights, Benson said, and Flight 3411 was operated by Republic Airline. Benson said the crew members who needed to board that flight were Republic employees. A Republic spokesman declined to comment on the incident Monday afternoon.

Two customers left the plane when they were asked, but the man who eventually was forced off the flight was asked to leave repeatedly "and refused to do so," Benson said.

"These instances are rare, but when they do happen the next step is to involve law enforcement, which is what we did," she said.

Will Nevitt, 30, a teacher who was returning home to Louisville from Chicago, said that a United manager called the doctor and his wife that they were being asked to leave the aircraft because they and two other passengers had purchased the cheapest flights on the plane.

Nevitt said that United personnel had offered up to an $800 voucher, and that one of the passengers said he would take $1,600. But the airline employees said they could not go any higher.

Nevitt said the person who identified himself as a doctor was stubborn, but that the situation did not escalate into violence until three security people attempted to pull the man off the aircraft. The man resisted at first but then appeared to be unconscious as he was pulled off the aircraft.

About 10 minutes later, according to Nevitt, the man raced back on the airplane and "barricaded " himself" in the rear. At that point everyone was ordered to leave the aircraft, in part so blood could be cleaned out of it. About 45 minutes to an hour later passengers were allowed to reboard.

Nevitt said the situation could have been avoided if United and been willing to offer more to passengers to give up their seats.

The Chicago Department of Aviation, in an emailed statement, said the incident on Flight 3411 "was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure." The department said its security officer who dragged the man from his seat had been placed on leave pending a review of the situation and that his actions "are obviously not condoned by the department."

NBC News said the Chicago Police Department issued a statement Monday that said the passenger who was removed from the flight was 69 years old and was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after Sunday's altercation. The police said aviation officers tried to carry the man, who had become irate, off the plane "when he fell," and his "head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face," according to NBC News.

Airlines routinely try to bump the passengers with the cheapest tickets because the compensation formula is based on the ticket price, according to the Associated Press.

The airline industry says carriers expect a certain amount of no-shows for any given trip, so selling tickets for more seats than a particular flight can accommodate is a way for them to try to fill their planes. Overbooking a flight isn't prohibited by federal regulations, and passengers' rights in that kind of situation are limited.

Airlines usually request volunteers who are OK with taking a new flight in return for compensation and will keep upping their offers if necessary until enough people take the deal. If still need more people to give up their seat, the company can determine who must leave but typically makes that decision before passengers board the plane.

Follow Morgan Watkins and Lucas Aulbach on Twitter: @morganwatkins26 and @LucasAulbachCJ

Copyright 2017 Gannett


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