Enraged Chinese netizens called for a boycott of U.S. carrier United Airlines after footage of an Asian American passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight went viral.
The Sina Weibo hashtag “United Airlines forcibly bumps a passenger” had been viewed more than 150 million times as of press time and garnered more than 90,000 comments, making it the top trending topic of the day on the platform.
The man, who has since been identified by media as David Dao, an American physician born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, was manhandled after refusing to give up his seat on the flight before it departed from Chicago O'Hare International Airport en route to Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday.
Reports in some Chinese and overseas media had originally identified the man as Chinese-American.
Videos posted online showed the man being dragged down the aisle by his arms with his shirt above his midriff and his face bloodied.
Fellow passenger Tyler Bridges, who posted video of the incident to his Twitter account, said that the man had told United staff that he was a doctor and had to return to Kentucky to care for his patients.
The Washington Post quoted Bridges as saying that the man eventually yelled, “I'm being selected because I'm Chinese.”
The incident immediately sparked outrage on China's Internet, with many users condemning the airline for its brutal behavior, and even accusing it of being racist.
“The company may think that Asian Americans are always obedient but this incident has crossed the line too much,” Weibo user “chouqianguai” commented.
“Although it is legal to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, violently forcing a passenger to leave the plane regardless of his dignity and rights is horrible. Is this the way United Airlines boasts of the spirit of contract and human rights?” Weibo user “tangcupaigu” wrote.
A Chinese aviation industry insider who requested for anonymity told the Global Times on Tuesday that it's routine for airlines to oversell flights to avoid empty seats, and compensation is often offered to passengers who voluntarily give up their place on the plane.
But “bumping” passengers against their will can spark confrontation, which is why it is never done in China and only rarely done elsewhere, said the insider.
Outrage over the incident was only further inflamed by the release of a letter written by the United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz, which was circulated to employees and later leaked on social media and translated into Chinese.
Munoz made no apology for the way the passenger was treated and instead emphasized that he had “refused to comply” with staff.
“While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you [employees] …When we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions,” Munoz wrote.
Munoz's remarks brought further criticism and shortly after, a picture of one of United's planes with a caption reading, “If we cannot beat our competitors, we will beat our customers” went viral on Chinese social media.
A Net user who claimed to be a Chinese overseas student living in New York commented on the news site guancha.cn that “the man may not have been chosen for his ethnicity but the way the company dealt with the aftermath has humiliated the Asian-American community.”
“Munoz made this announcement to back up the employees, and as an Asian, we can also call on our counterparts to boycott its airlines,” Weibo user “Dawang” commented.
Flights between China and the U.S. have become increasingly profitable for overseas airlines. Aside from flights from the U.S. to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, United Airlines last year opened a direct flight from San Francisco to Xi'an, the capital city of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and another from San Francisco to Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, according to reports on caacnnews.com.cn, a website affiliated with the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that one of the security officers who dragged the man off the plane had not followed protocol and added that he had been placed on leave pending a review for actions not condoned by the department.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Tuesday it was reviewing whether United complied with overbooking rules that require airlines to set guidelines on how passengers are denied boarding if they do not volunteer to give up their seats.