CHICAGO - A doctor trying to return home to his patients was dragged by his hands from an overbooked United Airlines flight by gun-carrying Chicago police, according to social media, embroiling the carrier its second public relations nightmare in less than a month.
Video of the incident posted to Twitter account @Tyler_Bridges shows three policemen huddling over the seated passenger, who appears to be an older Asian man, before dragging him on the floor.
In a separate tweet, Bridges wrote that the man was removed because four additional United crew needed to get to Louisville.
United said in a statement provided to some media outlets that the flight was overbooked.
"After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily," United spokesman Charlie Hobart said. "We apologise for the overbook situation."
In Bridges' video, a woman can be heard asking "Can't they rent a car for the pilots and have them drive?" before two of the uniformed men reach into the passenger's seat and yank him from his chair.
The passenger screams as he is dragged on his back by his hands, glasses askew and shirt pulled up above his navel.
Another video shows him, still dishevelled from the altercation, returning to the cabin, running to the back of the plane and repeating: "I have to go home."
Fellow passenger Jayse D Anspach, who goes by @JayseDavid on Twitter, wrote: "No one volunteered (to leave), so @United decided to choose for us. They chose an Asian doctor and his wife."
When the passenger refused to disembark, "a couple of airport security men forcefully pulled the doctor out of his chair and to the floor of the aisle." The man's face "was slammed against an arm rest, causing serious bleeding from his mouth," wrote Anspach.
"It looked like he was knocked out, because he went limp and quiet and they dragged him out of the plane like a rag doll."
United Airlines' chief executive Oscar Munez explained that no one was removed from the jetliner, only "re-accommodated".
Two officers tried to reason with the man before a third came aboard and pointed at the man "basically saying, 'Sir, you have to get off the plane,'" Bridges said. That's when the altercation happened.
One officer involved has been placed on leave, the Chicago Aviation Department said Monday.
After the passenger was removed, the four United employees boarded the plane.
"People on the plane were letting them have it," Bridges said. "They were saying, 'You should be ashamed to work for this company.'"
A few minutes later, the man who was removed from the plane returned, looking dazed and saying he had to get home, Bridges said. Officers followed him to the back of the plane. Another man travelling with high school students stood up at that point and said they were getting off the plane, Bridges said.
About half of the passengers followed before United told everyone to get off, he said.
The man who was originally dragged down the aisle was removed from the plane again, and United employees made an announcement saying they had to "tidy up" the aircraft, Bridges said.
Bridges' wife told him she saw the man taken away on a stretcher, he said.
After a three-hour delay the flight took off without the man aboard, Bridges said. A United employee apologised to passengers, he said.
US airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, and they routinely overbook flights because some people do not show up.
It's not unusual for airlines to offer travel vouchers to encourage people to give up their seats, and there are no rules for the process. When an airline demands that a passenger give up a seat, the airline is required to pay compensation of double the passenger's one-way fare, up to $675, if the passenger can be placed on another flight that arrives one to two hours later than the first flight, or four times the ticket price, up to $1,350, for longer delays.
Last year, United forced 3,765 people off oversold flights and another 62,895 United passengers volunteered to give up their seats, probably in exchange for travel vouchers.
Late last month, two teenage girls dressed in leggings were denied boarding on a United flight from Denver to Minneapolis because of their form-fitting pants.
Because the girls were using free passes for employees or family members, they were subject to a dress code.