AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Passengers on a United Airlines flight out of Chicago were treated to a jarring sight yesterday. Security officers forcibly removed a man from a plane who refused to leave an overbooked flight. Fellow fliers captured the scene on video.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Screaming).
CORNISH: NPR's Camila Domonoske has been writing about this story for our website. She joins us now. Welcome to the studio, Camila.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Thanks. Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: All right, so in this video, we see some men surrounding a particular passenger. They kind of work him out of his seat to the point where he ends up on the ground and then looks like he's being dragged off the plane. How did it get to that point?
DOMONOSKE: So according to other passengers on the flight, everyone had already boarded this plane, and they were in their seats ready to go when United asked for volunteers to give up their seats. They said they had four crew members who had to get to Louisville for another flight. So they offered a certain amount of money. They didn't get any takers. They upped the amount of money. They were offering $800 and a hotel room, and there weren't volunteers.
So at that point, again, according to passengers on the plane, United said they picked four people at random and that those people would have to get off the plane. One of those people was the man in the video who said he was a doctor, that he had patients to see and that he couldn't leave, and he didn't want to go. And at that point, United called security, and that prompted the violent interaction that was captured in those videos.
CORNISH: Right, and we have heard from O'Hare Airport security and United in response to this controversy. What did they have to say?
DOMONOSKE: So United's CEO said this was an upsetting incident. He said United had opened a review into it, was reaching out to the passenger in question. He also said, quote, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."
Meanwhile, the folks who run O'Hare's security said that the incident was not in accordance with their protocol and that one security officer is suspended, has been put on leave while they also open an investigation.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, for the rest of us who may have this question now, what protections do consumers have when a flight is overbooked?
DOMONOSKE: So it is possible - it's perfectly legal for airlines to boot you off a flight, for you to be bumped. The fact that you have a ticket actually doesn't guarantee you a right to be on a plane. So airlines, to increase their profits, routinely sell more tickets than they actually have seats, and people then have tickets and aren't allowed to board. Of course the legality of being able to bump somebody from a flight is a different thing from the method of how this man was removed from the flight, which I think people are upset about both of those in this case.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, this is the second time in a couple of weeks that United has taken a public relations hit. The first time was when they denied two teenagers a seat because of how they were dressed - the great kind of leggings incident of 2017 (laughter) - any lessons to draw from this?
DOMONOSKE: You know, what was really striking about both of these incidents was how bad United's initial response on social media was. After this leggings incident, these teenage girls being denied permission to board because they were wearing leggings, the first response that came from an official United outlet was that they're allowed to deny passengers travel based on inappropriate clothing, which obviously wasn't answering people's problems, people's deep issues with that incident.
They later had a more thorough explanation, but it was hours. And by that point, the story had gone viral. Here too, the first response from United was to say that a customer was refusing to leave his seat and not responding whatsoever to the violence in the videos that obviously has fueled the outrage and led to some people to call for a boycott of the airline.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you so much.
DOMONOSKE: Thanks, Audie.