United Airlines apologized on Tuesday and said it would review its policies after videos showed a passenger being forcibly removed from a full plane to make room for its own employees, setting off public outrage.
Oscar Munoz, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement that United would take “full responsibility” for the situation and that “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”
He committed to making changes to ensure that the situation would not repeat itself, adding that United would conduct “a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”
The company said it will communicate the results of its review by the end of the month.
The videos cast a sharp focus on airline overbooking, as travelers, already dealing with the myriad indignities of flying, realized they could be physically ejected from a seat they had booked and paid for in advance.
Airlines can bump passengers from flights for a number of reasons, including favoring passengers who paid a higher fare or customers who have frequent-flier status. The reasons that those four passengers in particular were bumped on the United flight on Sunday remain unclear. The airline said it needed seats to get its own employees to Louisville, Ky.
Videos of the episode, in which the passenger was dragged along the floor on an airplane, spread quickly online. The Transportation Department is investigating whether the airline complied with federal rules on overbooking.
Suddenly, all around the country, airline passengers have begun to realize that, even if they are sitting in a seat, holding a ticket and quietly scanning the magazine in the seat back for what movies are going to be available for purchase during the flight, they can still get kicked off. Fairly randomly, it seems.
Airlines often overbook flights, but it is rare to be denied boarding. Among airlines based in the United States, about 62 out of a million passengers were denied boarding last year, according to the Department of Transportation. United was in the middle of the pack, ranked No. 5, with 3,765 passengers involuntarily denied boarding out of more than 86 million who were allowed on an airplane, according to the Transportation Department. (An additional 62,895 did not board, but on a voluntary basis.)
Experts say airlines routinely study data to see which flights are likely to have no-shows. Then they sell more tickets than seats on the plane, expecting several people not to show up, a strategy that ensures a full plane and maximizes profit for airlines. When there are not enough no-shows, airlines will begin offering bribes — rewards usually in the form of travel vouchers, gift cards or even cash — in the hopes that flexible customers will be willing to take the reward and reschedule their flight.
For the truly flexible traveler, the system can be manipulated to their advantage, travel experts say.
“There are people who fly around the world on credits they got from giving up their airline seats,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, an industry publication.
Typically, airlines began bargaining with passengers at the gate, offering travel vouchers of $400 to $600, at first. In the United States, compensation maxes out at $1,350, but experts say the reward offers rarely go that high.
If the airline cannot get enough volunteers, however, it will choose passengers on its own.
Each airline sets its own system for deciding whom to bump. Some choose the passengers who paid the lowest fares, while some choose the last passengers to check in, according to the Department of Transportation.
The department requires airlines to give involuntarily bumped passengers “a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t,” according to its consumer guide.
“Once you have purchased your ticket, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early,” the department said. “For passengers in the same fare class, the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadline.”
The United passenger removed on Sunday, however, was already in his seat and had refused several offers by the airline to be compensated to reschedule the flight.
In a letter to United employees on Tuesday morning — several hours before he sent the contrite statement — Mr. Munoz said that United needed the seats for employees who had to get to Louisville, the destination of the flight. When the airline could not get the necessary number of passengers voluntarily, it selected four to be bumped.
A spokeswoman for United said that technically, the flight to Louisville was not overbooked, but that the company followed the procedure for such situations after four crew members arrived needing seats once passengers had boarded. She would not specify why the passenger in the video was chosen.
Three passengers disembarked. But the fourth passenger did not give up his seat and he was forcibly removed, dragged down the airplane aisle, his glasses askew, face bloodied, by several security officers. He has not been identified. One of the security officers has been placed on leave, according to the authorities.
The episode stirred anger as the videos spread online, and many travelers responded with heavy criticism of United’s tactics. It also became the focus of Chinese media attention and was the most popular topic on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with many users accusing United of racism by selecting the man, who appeared to be Asian.
In his letter, Mr. Munoz said that employees “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” and that he “emphatically” stood behind them.
“I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right,” he wrote.
“I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident,” he continued. “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”