A 30-second video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged from his seat and bloodied on an overbooked Sunday flight at O'Hare International Airport racked up more than 6 million views Monday and sparked plenty of outrage.
For United, the video threatened to unravel more than a year of work by CEO Oscar Munoz to rebuild the airline's battered customer service reputation — and prompted questions about why United didn't try harder to fix the situation rather than apologizing afterward for having to "reaccommodate" passengers.
It was also the second time in two weeks that Chicago-based United took a beating on social media, having previously been chastised for not allowing two teens wearing leggings — a violation of a dress code for employees and guests traveling on the company's dime — to board.
For the flying public, the episode served as a stark reminder that a seat isn't guaranteed until a flight is airborne. Almost half a million passengers on major U.S. airlines got bumped last year, but most of them volunteered to lose their seats in return for credits for future flights.
The aviation security officer who pulled the man from his seat was placed on leave Monday, "pending a thorough review of the situation," the Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement. "The incident on United Flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure, and the actions are obviously not condoned by the department," the statement read.
Munoz said United is conducting a detailed review of the incident, which he called "an upsetting event to all of us here at United." At the same time, United defended its policies and its employees while saying in a letter to employees Monday night, "there are lessons we can learn from this experience."
The United Express flight was operated by Republic Airways but the passengers are considered United customers, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said.
The damage this incident has caused to United's reputation may be irreversible, at least for some consumers, said Matt Rizzetta, CEO of New York-based public relations firm North 6th Agency.
Tyler Bridges, a passenger on the flight, said he'd think twice before booking with the airline again. Bridges and his wife were waiting at the gate for their flight home to Louisville when United asked for volunteers to take a later flight, offering $400 and a hotel stay. Once passengers boarded, he said United increased the offer to $800, but still no one volunteered.
Bridges said passengers were then told a computer would select four passengers to leave the aircraft. United said Monday evening it offered as much as $1,000 to passengers who were told to leave the aircraft.
When the man who was ultimately removed was selected, he protested, saying he was a doctor who needed to see patients Monday morning, according to Bridges. After security personnel came and spoke with him, he still refused, Bridges said.
"It was clear he wasn't going to come off unless they were to drag him off," Bridges said. "He was resisting any way he could. He was flailing his arms a little bit and yelling."
Monday night, the airline called him "disruptive and belligerent."
Bridges' wife, Audra, posted a video of the incident on Facebook, which was shared more than 87,000 times and viewed 6.8 million times by 6 p.m. Monday.
United confirmed Monday evening that passenger ran back onto the aircraft after being removed.
Tyler Bridges also posted a video on Twitter showing the man, who United has not identified, hurrying back down the aisle after he was dragged, saying repeatedly, "I have to go home. I have to go home."
Videos like the Bridges' spread across the internet, some showing the bloodied face of the man.
Munoz said in a statement the airline is trying to reach the passenger to "further address and resolve this situation."
"I apologize 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," Munoz said.
It was unclear why the airline waited until passengers were in their seats before bumping some from the flight to make way for crew members who needed to make it to Louisville to work.
Hobart said employees followed United's procedures of first seeking volunteers and, when unsuccessful, explaining the situation to the customers it chose to bump and finally, involving law enforcement when a customer refuses.
It's not unusual for airlines to bump travelers from overbooked flights — it happened to about 475,000 passengers on U.S. airlines last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But about 91.5 percent of the time, passengers volunteer to get bumped, in exchange typically receiving a seat on a later flight and a travel voucher as compensation. Travelers who don't volunteer also get something in return for being bumped.
Industry analysts questioned why employees at the gate didn't try to further sweeten the deal.
"Everybody has their price. If they had allowed the agent to offer a higher incentive, we may never have heard about this," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
Hobart said United tries to come up with a reasonable compensation offer, but "there comes a point where you're not going to get volunteers."
At that point, United's policy says the airline can select passengers to bump to a later flight based on a priority system that can take into account how much passengers paid, how often they fly, whether missing that flight could affect a connecting flight and how early they checked in for their flight. People with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are generally the last to be bumped.
Usually, passengers — however disgruntled — comply with the airline's orders. But the fact that the airline waited until passengers were already in their seats to bump customers for crew members made the situation worse.
"United was in a classic no-win situation: having security remove the passenger or allowing him to disobey their legally permissible request. Both have bad outcomes," DePaul University School for Public Service professor Joseph Schwieterman said in an email.
Passengers sometimes think airlines will give in to avoid a scene, but that's usually not the case, he said.
Others thought the airline could have resolved the situation with a lot less disruption if it had been willing to be a little more flexible.
United could have asked passengers why they were traveling or considered moving to the next name on the list when a passenger flat-out refused to budge, said George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog, an airfare listing and travel advice site.
"If United had crashed a plane, it would have been less of a PR disaster than this. It just looks so cruel, and inexplicable and arbitrary," he said.