Backlash Grows Over Video of United Airlines Passenger Being Dragged From Plane

United Airlines Editorial

Travel agents on our Facebook page were critical of yesterday’s incident in which a man was dragged by security personnel off of a United Airlines flight.

“It’s horrible, especially when he had to come off so they could transport UA personnel,” says Jaime Lawson Moore. “They should’ve offered $2,000 before they did this…ridiculous & they’ll pay. I’m sure there will be a lawsuit.”

“Fly United, take another airline,” remarked David Andrew.

A fellow passenger posted a Facebook video of the incident, in which United Airlines informed passengers after they had boarded that the plane was overbooked, and four passengers would need to leave in order to allow United Airlines personnel to take the flight to its destination. The airline initially offered an incentive of $400 and a free hotel night, followed by $800. When no passengers volunteered, the airline randomly began selecting passengers to remove. One passenger refused to leave, claiming that he was a doctor who needed to see patients the next day. The airline called security officers, who dragged the man down the aisle and from the plane.

United later issued a statement in response to the incident. In a statement on its website United CEO Oscar Munoz said, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate 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. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

In an internal letter to employees obtained by CNBC, however, Munoz defended the decision, claiming that the airline “followed established procedures” by having aviation police remove a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger from the airplane.

The video, and United’s response, has drawn criticism from PR and aviation experts, as well as impacting the airline's stock price.

Shares in United Continental Holdings, United Airlines’ parent company, were down 3.7 percent in morning trading, MarketWatch reports. Shares had already been down 6 percent in premarket trading ahead of the market’s opening Tuesday morning. The stock is now expected to be down about 2.8 percent for the week, reducing the airline’s market value by over $600 million since Friday. 

“The apology by the CEO was, at best, lukewarm or, at worst, trying to dismiss the incident,” Director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation Rupert Younger told CNN Money. “The CEO should make a better, more heartfelt, more meaningful and more personal apology.” 

Ed Zitron, PR expert and author of “This Is How You Pitch,” told CNN Money that the airline may not be offering a full apology over fears of a potential lawsuit.

Other industry analysts noted that the situation may have been averted with a higher incentive for passengers to volunteer to take the next day’s flight.

“Everybody has their price,” Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, told the Chicago Tribune. “If they had allowed the agent to offer a higher incentive, we may never have heard about this.”

Other analysts have pointed out that overbooking is a common practice among airlines.

“Overbooking is a necessity for airlines due to different levels of no show passengers experienced on different routes,” John Strickland, director at JLS Consulting, told CNBC. “It’s normally a highly sophisticated process based on extensive detailed statistical analysis. Even when passengers are forcibly denied boarding the idea is to handle this as tactfully and sensitively as possible.”

Gordon Bethune, former chief executive of United Continental Holdings, criticized the passenger’s behavior in an interview with CNBC.

“Denied boarding is usually handles with a whole lot more maturity,” Bethune said. “[United] tries to do a professional job, but not everybody on the plane is professional. This immature reaction disturbs us all.”

Meanwhile, the satirical hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos was trending on Twitter this morning, as passengers mocked the airlines’ response.

The incident came just weeks after another controversial incident in which United Airlines denied boarding to two young girls traveling on discounted non-revenue tickets, because they were wearing leggings that did not conform to the employee dress code.