By Daniel Victor and Matt Stevens
A man on an overbooked United Airlines flight was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged through the aisle on Sunday, and video of the anguished protests by him and other passengers spread rapidly on Monday as people criticized the airline's tactics. A police officer involved in the episode has been placed on leave, authorities said.
At least two passengers documented the confrontation on the flight, which was scheduled to depart Chicago O'Hare for Louisville, Kentucky, at 5:40 p.m. Central time but was delayed two hours. Their videos show a police officer in plain clothes wrestling the man from his seat and dragging him by his arms, as his glasses slid down his face and his shirt rose above his midriff. Uniformed officers followed.
Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman, said in a telephone interview on Monday that "we had asked several times, politely" for the man to relinquish his seat before force was used.
"We had a customer who refused to leave the aircraft," he said. "We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.
"Since that customer refused to leave the aircraft, we had to call the Chicago Police Department, and they came on board."
The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that the incident "was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure," and an officer had been placed on leave pending a review of the episode. The department declined to identify the officer.
A passenger, Tyler Bridges, said that when he arrived at the gate about 20 minutes before boarding, United had announced that the flight was overbooked; the airline was offering $400 vouchers to anyone who would give up their seat, Bridges said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Nonetheless, the passengers boarded the plane.
"There was no indication anything was wrong," Bridges said.
An airline employee came on board and said United needed four people to get off, he said, adding that the airline had by then increased its incentive to an $800 voucher.
Hobart confirmed that United had sought volunteers to relinquish their seats with compensation, but none stepped forward.
Another United employee told passengers that the plane would not leave until four people got off, Bridges said. The employee then specified that the airline had four United employees who needed to get to Louisville, he said.
Four passengers were selected to be bumped, and three left without incident, Hobart said.
Hobart would not say whether the bumped passengers were chosen by a computer, human or some combination of the two. But factors can include how long a customer would have to stay at the airport before being rebooked, he said, and the airline looks to avoid separating families or leaving unaccompanied minors.
A United employee first approached a couple that appeared to be in their mid-20s, Bridges said, and the pair begrudgingly got off the plane. Then the United employee went to a man five rows behind Bridges, and told him he needed to get off the plane. The man told the employee, "I'm not getting off the plane. I'm a doctor, I have to see patients in the morning," Bridges said.
"We explained the scenario to the customer," Hobart said. "That customer chose not to get out of his seat."
The situation became uncomfortable for the United employees who then got on board and took the vacated seats, Bridges said. They were berated by passengers and told they should be ashamed, he said.
The man who had been removed returned to the flight briefly, Bridges said, and was removed again. Video shows him jogging through the aisle, repeatedly saying: "I have to go home."
Bridges said he chose to post video of the episode to Twitter because "it felt like something the world needed to see."
In a statement, Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Airlines, called the episode "an upsetting event to all of us here at United."
He said the company apologized for having to reaccommodate the customers.
"Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."
In a statement, United said, "We apologize for the overbook situation."
Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than the plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough no-shows, airlines first try to offer rewards to customers willing to reschedule their plans, usually in the form of travel vouchers, gift cards or cash.
The arrangement can be lucrative to flexible travelers. A woman said she made $11,000 from Delta this past weekend by twice delaying a family trip to Florida with her husband and daughter, then ultimately canceling it.
The episode on Sunday was the second social media stir for United in two weeks. In March, two girls were barred from a flight because they were wearing leggings, which the company said violated its dress code for a company benefit of United employees and their dependents. Critics called it a sexist and overbearing policy.