Unfriendly skies

United Airlines says employees followed policy in removing man from overbooked flight

United Airlines said its employees followed policy in an incident Sunday that saw a man forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, an episode now under review by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Late Sunday evening, a passenger on a United flight posted a video of Department of Aviation police officers pulling a screaming man out of his seat and down the aisle of a United plane leaving Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Other videos show the man with a bloodied face, running back on the plane saying, “I have to go home,” and, “Just kill me.”

The incident began when employees asked four people to give up their seats voluntarily, in order to accommodate United crew members staffing a flight the next day out of Louisville, Kentucky, where the plane was headed, passengers on the flight later said. When not enough people volunteered, the man in the video was randomly chosen to leave, but he refused, saying he was a doctor who needed to see patients the next day.

Aviation officers ultimately carried him off the plane, during which time he fell and struck an armrest with his face, according to a Chicago Police Department statement.

The video triggered outrage across the country and in Asia. Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton — a D.C. delegate to Congress and a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — called for hearings into the incident. Democratic Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen also wants a “full investigation.”

United CEO Oscar Munoz publicly apologized “for having to re-accommodate these customers.” In an email to United employees, Munoz affirmed that workers “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” though the company is “taking a close look” at the incident.

While removing passengers from overbooked flights — also known as “involuntarily denied boarding” — can be done legally, the Department of Transportation has also signaled an interest in the case.

“The Department of Transportation (USDOT) remains committed to protecting the rights of consumers and is reviewing the involuntary denied boarding of passenger(s) from United Express flight 3411 to determine whether the airline complied with the oversales rule,” the Department of Transportation statement reads. “The Department is responsible for ensuring that airlines comply with the Department’s consumer protection regulations including its oversales rule. While it is legal for airlines to involuntary 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.”

The Chicago Department of Aviation says one of the officers involved in the incident had been placed on leave, pending “thorough review of the situation.” While Chicago Police Department officers watch over airport areas before security screenings, Aviation police are in charge of handling the secure areas beyond that, such as gates and terminals. Chicago’s aviation officers do not carry guns, though lawmakers unsuccessfully floated the possibility after the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting in January.

 

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