Video of police officers dragging a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight sparked an uproar Monday on social media.
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.
The airline was trying to make room for four of its employees on the Sunday evening flight to Louisville, Kentucky.
Other passengers on Flight 3411 are heard saying, ‘What are you doing?’, ‘This is wrong,’ and ‘Look at what you did to him’.
One passenger, 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,” Mr Bridges said.
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.
Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines’ parent company, described the event as ‘upsetting’ and apologised 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.
Bridges said 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.’
One officer involved has been placed on leave, the Chicago Aviation Department said today.
After the passenger was removed, the four United 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’.”
A few minutes later, the man who was removed from the plane returned, looking dazed and saying he had to get home, Bridges said.
Officers followed him to the back of the plane. Another man travelling 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.
After a three-hour delay the flight took off without the man aboard. A United employee apologised 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 in the US for the process.
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.