What started as a routine flight overbooking turned ugly on Sunday, when United Airlines sought four volunteers to give up their seats in order to accommodate crew members who needed to travel from Chicago to Louisville for a flight the next day.
No one accepted the offer of $800 in compensation for a seat, so United selected four unlucky passengers to remove from the flight. When one of the four refused to leave his seat, police physically removed him in a rather disturbing manner as other horrified passengers looked on. The man appeared to be injured and disoriented from the incident.
Passengers seated near the man used cell phones to record the dramatic scene, and subsequently posted the videos to social media. This video uploaded to Twitter has been retweeted more than 100,000 times.
All airlines sell more seats than there are available, a practice allowed under the law to minimize empty seats on commercial flghts. When there are too many passengers, gate agents typically ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation.
The situation that arose Sunday differed from a typical overbooking scenario in a couple of ways. First, passengers were already on the plane when they were forced to leave. Second, United had miscalculated how it would transport its own employees to Louisville, forcing paying customers to suffer the consequences.
United could have offered more compensation to drum up volunteers. Under the law, passengers who are bumped involuntarily and accommodated on a departing flight the next day are entitled to 400% of their one-way fare, up to $1,350. But United kept its offer at $800.
The backlash in the court of public opinion may end up costing the airline far more. In a statement, United initially appeared to blame the passenger, citing his refusal to leave the aircraft.
UPDATE: After video of the incident went viral, the carrier's CEO, Oscar Munoz apologized for having to "re-accommodate these customers." Later, however, Munoz defended the actions of United staff, calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent." As public outrage over the incident continued to swell, United issued a third statement from Munoz, calling the incident "truly horrific" and promising a full investigation of the incident and the company's policies for incentivizing volunteers.
We will continue to watch this story as it develops. To learn more about what to expect if your flight is oversold and how to avoid being bumped, read our passenger's guide to airline overbooking.