The CEO of United Airlines has said that employees “followed established procedures” in an incident which saw a passenger dragged off an overbooked US domestic flight.
In an email to employees, Oscar Munoz said he was “upset to see and hear about what happened”.
But he said that the passenger had been “disruptive and belligerent”.
The airline earlier said that it was investigating what happened after videos provoked a social media outcry.
The footage taken inside the airliner shows a man being pulled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle. He is later seen with blood on his face.
Shares in United Continental Holdings, which owns United Airlines, dropped by more than 3% on Tuesday, the day after the incident.
The man has not been officially identified but a passenger who sat next to him told BBC Radio 5 Live that he said he was originally from Vietnam and had been living in Louisville, Kentucky, for about 20 years. He said he and his wife were both doctors.
The flight from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening had been overbooked.
The airline wanted to get four passengers to leave the flight to make room for four staff members.
Mr Munoz has faced criticism on social media for his response to the incident.
He told staff in the private email that he was “upset to see and hear about what happened” but defended United employees.
“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” the Associated Press quoted the email as saying.
Mr Munoz wrote that the passenger refused to voluntarily leave the plane, with staff “left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight”.
Only last month, trade magazine PRWeek named Mr Munoz as 2017 US Communicator of the Year, but his airline’s handling of the fallout from this incident is being mocked on Twitter.
Users are posting under the hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos and the Merriam-Webster dictionary tweeted that volunteering means doing something “without being forced”.
Some initial reports said the manhandled passenger was Chinese-American, although other reports said he was from Vietnam, and outrage quickly erupted on Chinese and Vietnamese social media.
More than 60,000 people so far have signed petition to the White House asking for an investigation into the incident.
Jayse D Anspach, who posted footage that went viral, tweeted: “#United overbooked and wanted four of us to volunteer to give up our seats for personnel that needed to be at work the next day.”
“No one volunteered, so United decided to choose for us. They chose an Asian doctor and his wife.”
“The doctor needed to work at the hospital the next day, so he refused to volunteer,” Mr Anspach added.
“Ten minutes 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’.”
A video that appears to show the man back on the plane, dazed and with blood around his mouth, saying “just kill me”, has also emerged online.
One of the three security officers involved has been “placed on leave”, the Chicago Department of Aviation said, and his actions were “obviously not condoned by the Department”.
The department also said it would carry out a review into the incident, which it said was “not in accordance with our standard operating procedure”.
The US Department of Transportation is reviewing whether United complied with rules on overbooking,
“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 spokesperson said in a statement reported by Reuters.
United said it was trying to talk to the passenger directly in order to “further address and resolve this situation”.
Can an airline really treat passengers like this? – by Simon Calder, travel correspondent for the Independent
Yes. The captain is in charge of the aircraft. And if he or she decides that someone needs to be offloaded, that command has to be obeyed. From the moment that the unfortunate individual in this case said, “I’m staying put”, he became a disruptive passenger.
From that moment he was disobeying the captain’s command. Officials were legally entitled to remove him, and as the videos show, he was dragged from the plane. It appears from the evidence that the law was broken – by him, not by the airline. But I would be surprised if United pressed charges.
Does it happen often?
No – normally airlines handle cases of too many passengers for the available seats much better than this, and generally do so at the gate. First, the airline asks for volunteers. The idea is that everyone has their price: an amount of cash, travel vouchers or other bribes such as a round trip anywhere the airline goes.
Flexible travellers, including me, actively pursue overbooked flights to keep our travel costs down.
So what went wrong here?
It appears to have been a series of errors. A group of flight crew needed to be in Louisville, properly rested, in order to operate the next morning’s plane. Had they not been able to get there, then many more passengers would have had their plans messed up. The big mistake the airline made was allowing all the fare-paying passengers on board, and then trying to entice enough people off.
It would have been far better to conduct the auction at the gate; physically preventing someone boarding is less harmful than dragging them kicking and screaming from their seat.
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