United Airlines faces backlash after dragging man from plane

Last Updated Apr 11, 2017 5:27 PM EDT

United Airlines is facing a turbulent public reaction over its treatment of a passenger who was physically dragged from a flight.

A video of the incident showed a man identified as Kentucky physician David Dao, who was traveling on United Airlines flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, forcibly removed when the flight was oversold Sunday night. Passengers were chosen at random to be bumped from the flight, including Dao and his wife. He was shown screaming as officers pull him from his seat.

Dao was seen being dragged down the aisle on his back by his hands, body limp, bleeding from the mouth, glasses askew and shirt pulled up above his navel. 

It marks the second time in less than a month that United was criticized for its treatment of passengers. Adding to the public outrage is a letter from United CEO Oscar Munoz to its employees defending the airline’s actions, writing “our agents were left with no choice” but to call security to remove the passenger. 

In a statement issued Tuesday, Munoz issued his “deepest apologies” for the incident and said the company is reviewing its policies. He said he expects the results to be completed by April 30. “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” he wrote. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Munoz added the company will “take full responsibility” and is undertaking a “thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.” 

Other passengers said the man identified himself as a doctor, and said he couldn’t give up his seat because he had to see patients in the morning. Another passenger said the man’s injury came from his face hitting the arm rest as he was dragged from the plane. 

An attorney representing Dao issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying he is being treated for his injuries in a Chicago hospital.

“The family of Dr. Dao wants the world to know that they are very appreciative of the outpouring of prayers, concern and support they have received,”said Chicago attorney Stephen L. Golan of Golan Christie Taglia, who represents the Dao family. “Currently, they are focused only on Dr. Dao’s medical care and treatment.”

Dao was one of four people picked by United to be involuntarily bumped from the flight. The reason? The airline needed to seat four of its own employees, according to The New York Times. When those employees got on the flight and took the newly unoccupied seats, other passengers told them they should be ashamed, the publication added. 

United Airlines shares fell almost 4 percent amid the backlash. The incident reached more than 340 million Chinese users on the Weibo platform by Tuesday morning, and consumers in that country were calling for a boycott of the airline, according to BuzzFeed. 

The treatment of the man trended on social media, with some U.S. consumers also vowing to boycott United. 

Munoz said there are lessons the company can learn from this situation, though he impressed that he “emphatically” stands behind his employees.

“We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation),” Munoz wrote. “When we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.”

The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that one of the officers did not follow protocol and added that he had been placed on leave pending a review for actions not condoned by the department.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said it was reviewing whether United complied with overbook rules that require airlines to set guidelines on how passengers are denied boarding if they do not volunteer to give up their seats.

“While it is legal for airlines to involuntarily bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities,” a DOT spokesperson said in a statement.

The incident, which was one of the top-trending topics on Twitter as users took to the website to express their anger toward the airline, also became the focus of dark humor. The hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos trended on Tuesday morning, including “board as a doctor, leave as a patient” and “We make offers you’d better not refuse.”

“Apologize for saying you ‘had to’ do this. There were other options and you know it,” user @TessaDare wrote in a series of posts retweeted thousands of times. “Apologize for creating and allowing a corporate culture that says it’s okay to treat passengers with such disregard and disdain.”

Fellow passenger Jayse D. Anspach, who goes by @JayseDavid on Twitter, wrote: “No one volunteered (to leave), so @United decided to choose for us. They chose an Asian doctor and his wife.”

“It looked like he was knocked out, because he went limp and quiet,” Anspach wrote, “and they dragged him out of the plane like a rag doll.”

Another video shows the distressed man, still disheveled from the wrangle, returned to the cabin, clinging onto a curtain at the back of the plane and repeating: “Just kill me. Kill me,” and “I have to go home,” as blood streaked down his mouth.

Much of the online uproar surrounded the appropriateness of removing a paying customer in order to accommodate airline staff.

“They bloodied a senior citizen & dragged him off the plane so THEIR OWN STAFF could take his seat,” one Twitter user wrote.

Other social media users questioned whether the man would have been removed as forcefully had he not been Asian.

Outrage also erupted on Chinese social media, with the topic attracting more than 130 million views on its Weibo platform by Tuesday afternoon.

Many users focused on comments from a fellow passenger reported in the Washington Post, who said the man dragged off the plane said he was “being selected because I’m Chinese.”

Typical comments also included calls to boycott United, including from high-profile users like comedian Joe Wong, and Liu Qiangdong, founder of e-commerce giant JD.com.

“This makes me recall the nightmare experiences I had the three times I flew with United Airlines,” Liu told his more than 3 million followers.

“United’s service is definitely the worst in the world!”

Late last month, two teenage girls dressed in leggings were denied boarding on a United flight from Denver to Minneapolis because their form-fitting pants did not conform to the dress code for employees or family members using free passes.