United refused to answer questions about the incident, which horrified other passengers on the Louisville-bound flight. An airline spokesman only apologized for the overbooked flight, and said police were called after a passenger “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily.”
What happened was captured on cellphone video by at least two passengers.
Tyler Bridges recalled trouble starting almost as soon as he and his wife boarded.
An airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”
“That rubbed some people the wrong way,” Bridges said.
Passengers were offered vouchers to rebook, he said, but no one volunteered.
So the airline chose for them.
A young couple was told to leave first, Bridges recalled. “They begrudgingly got up and left,” he said.
Then an older man, who refused.
“He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” Bridges said.
The man became angry as the manager persisted, Bridges said, eventually yelling. “He said, more or less, ‘I’m being selected because I’m Chinese.’”
A police officer boarded. Then a second and a third.
Bridges then began recording, as did another passenger — as the officers leaned over the man, a lone holdout in his window seat.
“Can’t they rent a car for the pilots?” another passenger asks in the videos.
Then the man, out of frame, screams.
One of the officers quickly reaches across two empty seats, snatches the man and pulls him into the aisle.
“My God!” someone yells — not for the first time.
He goes limp after hitting the floor.
“It looked like it knocked him out,” Bridges said. “His nose was bloody.”
His glasses nearly knocked off his face, the man clutches his cellphone as one of the officers pulls him by both arms down the aisle and off the plane.
“This is horrible,” someone says.
“What are you doing? No! This is wrong.”
And with that, Bridges said, four United employees boarded and took the empty seats.
They were not popular among the passengers, he recalled.
“People were saying you should be ashamed to work for this company,” Bridges said.
In another video, the man runs back onto the plane, his clothes still mussed from his forcible ejection, frantically repeating: “I have to go home. I have to go home.”
“He was kind of dazed and confused,” Bridges said. He recalled a group of high school students leaving the plane in disgust at that point, their adult escort explaining to other passengers: “They don’t need to see this anymore.”
The airline eventually cleared everyone from the plane, Bridges said, and did not let them back on until the man was removed a second time — in a stretcher.
In the end, Bridges and his wife got to Louisville about three hours late.
“It was a pretty tense flight,” he said.
United Chief Oscar Munoz tweeted that everyone at the airline was upset about it.
Munoz, by the way, was recently honored as “Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek. Late Monday afternoon, the Chicago Department of Aviation said one of the officers involved in the incident had been placed on leave.
“The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department,” the agency said in a statement. “That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation.”
Lori Aratani contributed to this report.