Following several years of scandals and unflattering publicity, United Airlines is once again under fire after it forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight on April 9.
The incident, which caused the second social media frenzy surrounding United Airlines in as many weeks, took place on an overbooked flight that was scheduled to depart O’Hare International Airport in Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. The victim, reported to be a 69-year-old Chinese-American man, was dragged down the aisle by a security officer after he refused to be bumped from the flight. The disturbing scene was captured on the cell phones of several witnesses, and soon ignited widespread indignation.
As of press time, various social media platforms have been flooded with angry comments from concerned citizens worldwide, with many questioning the legitimacy of the airline’s actions. The top 10 trends on Reddit’s video section are all related to the incident, while the hashtag “UnitedForcedPassengerOffFlight” has garnered over 63 million page views on Sina Weibo, making it the hottest topic of the day.
The event has also drawn attention from politicians and authorities. Jan Schakowsky, a House Democrat who represents Chicago, issued a scathing statement on April 10, condemning United Airlines for its use of extreme force, stressing that “this is far from the end of the story.”
In response to the incident, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for “having to re-accommodate” the passengers, but his apology has been widely ridiculed as insufficient. Urban Dictionary, an online dictionary for slang, even added an entry for “re-accommodate,” defining the word to mean beating up and violently dragging paying passengers off an airplane in order to make room for airline crew on stand-by.
The federal Transportation Department is currently investigating the incident, and one of the officers involved in the episode has been placed on leave, according to media reports.
This is not the first time United Airlines has been bombarded with criticism for its approach to customer service.
In March, two girls wearing leggings were barred from a flight, as their outfits were deemed to violate the company’s dress code. In 2008, “United breaks guitars,” a trio of protest songs by Canadian musician Dave Carroll, became an immediate Youtube sensation after the songwriter chronicled his experience of having his instrument broken during a United Airlines flight.
“As a frequent passenger of United Airlines, I am dissatisfied with their service. I have been bumped from their overbooked flights several times, and the only compensation is a voucher, normally valid at limited airports. I’m skeptical of their so-called random rule of bumping passengers, as it has happened to me many times and I am Asian,” a netizen with the screen name “Nickcp39” wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website.
“Technically speaking, overbooking is not illegal in U.S., and passengers are sometimes required to leave an overloaded flight. But whether United Airlines complied with rules regarding overbooking is still in question,” Wang Yu’en, a Beijing-based lawyer, told the People’s Daily Online.
According to rules released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), when a flight is oversold, the DOT requires airlines to ask passengers to give up their seats voluntarily. If passengers are bumped without their consent, the airline must give them a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who stays on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.
“Instead of bumping the victim, United should have increased their offer until a passenger chose to leave the flight willingly. They should have at least offered him a written explanation,” said Wang. Wang also noted that airline employees should have asked for volunteers during check-in or in the boarding area, rather than forcing passengers to deplane once they were already on board.
“The victim explained that he was in a hurry due to a surgery he was scheduled to perform, and I think the airline should have taken this into consideration. Moreover, the problem was caused by United Airlines itself, as it was looking for extra seats for its own employees. I wonder if the overbooking rules apply in this scenario,” said Wang.
Racism or “just being rude?”
The shocking scene also raised questions about possible racism, as the victim is reportedly Chinese-American.
According to CNBC, United CEO Oscar Munoz called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” in a letter to employees on April 10, claiming that the plane’s staff had “followed established procedures” when removing the passenger from the flight.
“It may be true that the passenger was not chosen because of his ethnicity, but you cannot deny that United’s reaction subsequent to the incident is a humiliation to Asian-American communities. I wonder what Mr. Munoz would say if the victim were African-American?” Alex Shen, a Chinese student living in New York City, told the People’s Daily Online.
“I don’t think we should read too much into the incident, as it’s unlikely that the airline would bump a passenger due to his ethnicity,” countered Wang. “But it is unacceptable that the company failed to issue a decent apology to the victim.”