A United Airlines passenger was forcibly removed from a flight after he refused to voluntarily give up his seat Sunday night, as shown in jarring videos posted online by fellow passengers.
United had overbooked the flight and was looking for four volunteers to leave the plane in order to send four United crew members from Chicago to Louisville.
Passengers were allowed to board and the airline offered $800 to anyone who would give up their seat, but when there were no volunteers United said a computer would randomly select four passengers.
One of those selected claimed to be a doctor who had patients to see in the morning, and he refused to leave. Airport security then dragged him off the plane.
The United Contract of Carriage lays out specific policies for passengers who are not allowed to board overbooked flights but doesn’t cite policy for removing passengers who are already seated on such flights.
Late last month, two teenage girls dressed in leggings were denied boarding on a United flight from Denver to Minneapolis because of their form-fitting pants.
Because the girls were using free passes for employees or family members, they were subject to a dress code.
After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate, said United Airlines spokesman.
Images of a bloodied passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago drew widespread condemnation in China following a witnesses' report that the man said he was targeted because he was Chinese.
Video of the violent incident posted on China's popular Twitter-like Weibo had been viewed more than 210 million times by late Tuesday.
Many responded with outrage over perceived ethnic bias against the passenger and some called for a boycott of the U.S.-based airline.
"Rubbish!" writer Su Danqing posted on Weibo. "When they were treating this Asian man, they never thought of human rights, otherwise they wouldn't have done it that way."
"Damn it! This airline must be boycotted!" said a posting from Liu Bing, a telecommunications company worker.
State-run media fueled the anger with reports that noted the unidentified victim was an "Asian passenger."
United does considerable business with Chinese passengers and a consumer boycott could cause serious pain. United says it operates more non-stop U.S.-China flights to more cities in China than any other airline.
Rowdiness has long been associated with air travel in China, including passengers getting into fights with crew members and a vicious assault last year in which an enraged customer smashed an airline check-in clerk in the head with a brass plaque.
The United incident appeared to feed into such customer frustrations only this time the tables were turned and the passenger was cast as victim.
United executives struggled to control the public relations damage.
Airline CEO Oscar Munoz said the unidentified man removed from the Chicago to Kentucky flight had become "disruptive and belligerent" after he was asked to leave the plane to make room for several employees of a partner airline who wanted on the flight.
When the man refused, officers from the Chicago Aviation Department came in and first tried to reason with him before pulling him from his seat by force and dragging him away, according to another passenger, Tyler Bridges, whose wife later posted a video of the altercation on Facebook.
China’s social media was burning with outrage Tuesday over United Airlines’ forced removal of a passenger identified in news reports as ethnically Chinese.
The incident Sunday night, which was captured by mobile phone cameras, was the No. 1 trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. The topic drew more than 160 million views and about 100,000 comments by early Tuesday evening.
The flurry of online activity comes amid a growing awareness of consumer rights by Chinese citizens, who have taken to social media to complain about everything from bad customer service to poor-quality products.
Samsung Electronics Co. was in the crosshairs of Chinese social-media users last year after its Galaxy Note 7s was recalled due to exploding phones, while Apple Inc. was chastised by netizens several years earlier after a Chinese state-media broadcast accused Apple of being biased against Chinese consumers in its warranty and customer-service policies.
Many of the comments on Chinese social media focused on alleged discrimination by United, in response to reports by fellow passengers that the man was a doctor who claimed he was selected for removal because of his race.
“This is inherent arrogance,” said Song Hongbing, a popular Chinese author, on his verified Weibo account. “I don’t think a 69-year-old white doctor would be treated like this.”
Others talked about boycotting the airline or canceling their United Airlines credit cards.
“Overselling is the responsibility of the airlines,” said Wang Guanxiong, a venture-capital investor, on his verified account. “Why was it an Asian who got beaten? This is purely racial discrimination…boycott United Airlines.”
United Airlines Chief Executive Oscar Munoz apologized in an online statement, saying the airline would “conduct a detailed review” of the incident and reach out to the passenger directly.
In a memo sent to employees Monday evening, however, Mr. Munoz said the passenger defied aviation security officers after being asked to leave the plane. “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” he said.
A United representative couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the reaction in China.
United has operated in China for more than 30 years and has more nonstop routes to and from the mainland than American Airlines or Delta.
Unlike those two carriers, which fly nonstop to the U.S. from Shanghai and Beijing only, United also offers direct flights from second-tier cities such as Chengdu and Xi’an.
Last year, United added Hangzhou as a fifth Chinese destination for nonstop flights.
One reason why the episode has struck a chord in China is due to the rise of China’s middle class, said Linda Du, general manager at consultancy APCO Worldwide.
The number of nonresident visitors from China to the U.S. reached 2.1 million in the first three quarters of 2016, up 14.5% when compared with the same period a year earlier, according the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.
“International travel is now really common for people, either for business or personal pleasure. Chinese passengers want equal treatment, a good experience and to be respected,” Ms. Du said. “They have a sense of protecting self interest.”
Ms. Du noted that social media is one of the few outlets Chinese people have to express themselves. “In China, most of the traditional media is regulated by the Chinese government, so social media which is the grass roots voice is the only resource they have.”
Many comments on Chinese social media made reference to a popular Chinese TV soap opera, “In the Name of People,” which recently portrayed a corrupt official fleeing China aboard a United flight bound for Los Angeles.
Mixing fact and fiction, some social-media users joked that the official should have been thrown off the flight as well.