One Chicago Department of Aviation security officer has been put on leave after a passenger was dragged off a plane after refusing to give up his seat Sunday evening on a flight from Chicago to Kentucky.
"The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the department," spokeswoman Karen Pride said Monday.
Video posted on social media by flyers shows a man screaming as officers move in on him and pull him out of his window seat on Flight 3411, which was operated by United partner Republic Airways, at O'Hare International Airport. The passenger was later hospitalized at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Chicago police said.
The debacle also has put United Airlines in damage control mode. The decision to remove the passenger was made by United Airlines gate agents after four Republic Airways crew members required seats on the full plane in order to catch a flight they were operating from Louisville International Airport.
"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement. "I apologize for having to reaccommodate these customers. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."
One suburban congresswoman has called the response "brazenly inadequate."
According to Facebook and Twitter accounts by passengers, the man said he was a doctor who needed to get to Louisville to treat patients. Video footage shows a scuffle about 6 p.m. as one officer grabs the man, who begins yelling, possibly in pain. He is then dragged by his arms down the aisle, with his glasses askew and bruising or cuts around his nose.
As the passenger was carted out by three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers, the atmosphere on the jet became toxic. Flyers scolded officers, saying "good work" sarcastically, and called out in shock, "Look at what you did to him!" a Facebook video shows.
Other videos show the man with blood on his face, returning to the aircraft and repeating, "I have to go home."
Chicago police gave a report of what happened on the plane in a brief statement, saying the 69-year-old passenger "became irate after he was asked to disembark from a flight that was oversold. The passenger in question started yelling to voice his displeasure at which point the Aviation Police were summoned.
"Aviation Officers arrived on scene, attempted to carry the individual off of the flight when he fell. His head subsequently struck an armrest, causing injuries to his face."
Munoz echoed the report in a letter sent to United employees.
"Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this," he wrote. "While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right. I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident."
DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said "the incident highlights the tension that can arise when airlines break bad news to passengers. Too often, someone says 'no way' and the situation escalates until security gets involved.
"Global airlines like United follow a strict protocol when these types of problems occur, even when it results in a video that risks going viral. You simply can't make ad hoc decisions every time someone refuses to cooperate," Schwieterman said.
United spokesman Charles Hobart said the Republic Airlines flight out of Louisville would likely have been canceled had the four crew members not been accommodated. "That would have inconvenienced more people," he said.
The airline asked for volunteers to leave the place and offered an $800 travel voucher as an incentive, according to reports. When that failed, it chose four people for switching to another flight, Hobart said.
"One customer refused to get off the aircraft. We asked him several times and explained the need to depart, but he refused to get up," Hobart said. "The other customers understood and exited the aircraft."
Munoz said: "Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened." Munoz last month was named "U.S. Communicator of the Week" by PR Week for, among many reasons, generally putting the business "on a smoother course," signing new contracts with union employees that helped "curtail customer service problems caused by disgruntled staff," and overseeing the launch of the UnitedAirtime online portal to encourage a dialogue among him, staff members and customers.
The Chicago Department of Aviation, meanwhile, said its security officer was placed on leave "pending a thorough review of the situation."
Typically, the Chicago Fire Department handles all medical emergencies at O'Hare. The fire department was not involved in this case, however.
Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston blamed United Airlines for the situation, saying she was appalled.
"United had overbooked its own flight and chose to forcibly remove a passenger instead of increasing their offer until a passenger chose to leave the flight willingly. Their attempt to pass the buck by blaming the Chicago Police Department for the incident demonstrates that they do not understand the gravity of this incident," she said.
"At a minimum, United Airlines must immediately change their policy and give full restitution and compensation to the victim. This is far from the end of the story."