The airline has been vilified after aviation police officials violently removed a man from a plane at O’Hare international airport in Chicago on Sunday, in an incident captured on video by several passengers.
In one clip, posted by Audra Bridges to Facebook, guards could be seen aggressively grabbing then dragging the passenger down the aisle of the plane, which was bound for Louisville, Kentucky, as other passengers shouted, “Oh my God”, and, “Look what you did to him”.
In a letter to United Airlines staff, CEO Oscar Munoz said he was upset to see and hear about what happened but that he supported his employees.
“The situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago aviation security officers to help,” Munoz wrote in the letter obtained by CNBC and other news outlets.
“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. 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.”
Munoz added that when crew members first approached the passenger to tell him to leave, he “raised his voice and refused to comply”, and each time they asked “he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent”.
He said crew members “were left with no choice but to call Chicago aviation security officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight”, and that at one point the passenger “continued to resist – running back on to the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials”.
United Airlines said on Monday that after nobody agreed to voluntarily give up their seats, airline representatives chose four passengers to leave the plane at random based on ticket class, frequent flier status and check-in time.
Chicago police said the man became “irate” after he was asked to disembark and that he “fell” when aviation officers “attempted to carry the individual off the flight … His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face”.
In a statement to media, Munoz said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to reaccommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
Footage of the incident provoked an angry response on social media that was exacerbated by Munoz’s letter to staff and his use of the euphemism “reaccommodate” to describe passengers booted off the Chicago flight. An online petition calling for his resignation has received more than 2,000 signatures.
Chicago aviation department said one of the officers involved in the removal did not follow protocol and had been placed on leave pending a review. Federal transportation officials said they were reviewing whether United Airlines had complied with overbook rules.
Passengers from the flight reported that the man was eventually allowed back on the plane, face bloodied and looking confused, although the reason is unclear. According to Bridges, the man is a doctor and told flight officials he was due for a hospital shift.
The airline’s contract of carriage – an agreement that all customers assent to when booking – gives United the freedom to deny ticketed passengers travel if a flight is overbooked. Passengers are entitled to either cash or a flight landing near the same time as compensation.
United also reserves the right to remove passengers from a flight if they “fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew”.
The US Department of Transportation said it was reviewing whether United Airlines had complied with overbook rules that require airlines to set guidelines on how passengers are denied boarding if they do not volunteer to give up their seats.
“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 DoT spokesperson told Reuters.
Sunday’s incident came weeks after another public relations controversy for the airline. In late March, United was accused of sexism for refusing to allow a 10-year-old girl to board for violating its dress code for “pass riders”. The girl was wearing leggings.