The video of a passenger being wrestled from his seat and dragged off a United Airlines flight has flown across the Pacific and sparked outrage in China.
On Sunday, an unidentified man refused to be bumped from an overbooked United flight he had already boarded. The airline responded by calling airport security officers, who wrestled him out of his seat and threw him to the aisle floor, bloodying his face and leaving his glasses askew, before they dragged him off the plane, semi-conscious.
As the altercation was unfolding, fellow passengers overheard the man, of Asian descent, saying that he felt he was being targeted because he was Chinese. The man also said he was a doctor and couldn't miss the flight, because he had patients to see.
The shocking scene was captured by at least two passengers, whose videos spread across social media Monday, leading to widespread condemnation of United's policies and treatment of the man.
As the clips reached mainland China on Tuesday morning local time, the incident became the number one trending topic on social media platform Weibo, attracting more than 100 million views. Tens of thousands of Chinese users posted angry messages about the episode, with scores alleging discrimination and vowing never to fly United again.
"This is mafia behavior in a so-called civilized country," Chinese actress Yao Chen, star of recent local blockbuster Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, posted to Weibo.
"Why did they only beat up the Asian guy?" wrote Weibo user Wang Guanxiong. "This is racial discrimination - boycott United Airlines!"
"'Fly the Friendly Skies'" is United's slogan," said Shen Chongchong. "Is that sarcastic?"
China is the world's second-largest aviation market behind North America and a key focus of United's growth strategy. The company began nonstop service to China in 1986 and now says it "operates more nonstop U.S.-China flights, and to more cities in China, than any other airline."
Well-known China-born comedian Joe Wong, a former regular of The Late Show With David Letterman, took to Weibo to say that "many Chinese people feel they've been subject to discrimination." He added: "They stay silent because they fear losing face. That's why the Western mainstream media and public don't take discrimination against Asians seriously."
United's response to the ordeal - which many observers criticized as ham-fisted at best, cravenly callous at worst - has only exacerbated the company's PR woes.
The United flight, scheduled to depart Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for Louisville, Ky., had already fully boarded when airline staff informed customers that four crewmembers needed to get to another flight departing from Louisville. Passengers on the Chicago-Louisville plane were asked to give up their seats voluntarily, with the airline offering as much as $800 in travel vouchers in exchange.
Several passengers aboard the flight have said they were annoyed that they were being asked to give up their seats for airline employees. When no passengers volunteered, United engaged in what it describes as an "involuntary de-boarding situation," selecting four passengers for removal. The airline denies that the man was chosen because of his ethnicity. Two of the passengers had already left the plane before the man in the video refused to do so.
As the public backlash was unfolding Monday, United CEO Oscar Munoz tweeted a statement apologizing "for having to re-accommodate" customers. Jimmy Kimmel later used much of his Monday night monolog on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to savage Munoz's response.
"That is such sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak," Kimmel said. "I don't know how the guy who sent that tweet didn't vomit when he typed it out."