CHICAGO, April 27 (Reuters) - At least 10 major U.S. airports say their rules prevent security officers from physically removing passengers from airplanes unless a crime is committed, meaning they would normally avoid incidents such as the one involving the passenger dragged off a United Airlines flight in Chicago.
The April 9 incident sparked global outrage when images of a Vietnamese-American doctor being dragged through the aisle with blood on his face flooded social media and threw United into a public relations crisis.
Officials at 10 of the busiest U.S. airports - in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Miami - said airport police would not physically remove a passenger from a plane over a seat dispute.
“In a case like this, if it’s not a criminal matter, we don’t involve ourselves,” said Michael Rodriguez, a spokesman with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, which is responsible for security at McCarran International Airport.
The passenger, David Dao, flying home to Louisville, refused to surrender his seat to make room for United crew members and was forcibly removed by aviation police at O‘Hare International Airport.
His attorney said he ended up with a concussion, missing teeth and broken nose. United Airlines initially blamed Dao but later apologized for its handling of the incident.
United Chief Executive Oscar Munoz said the company would no longer use law enforcement officers to remove passengers from overbooked flights.
United on Thursday said after reviewing the incident that using law enforcement when there was no safety or security issue was a failure and called the incident a “defining moment.”
Security officials at other major airports said they had reviewed their rules and found them sufficient, with no need to amend them to avoid similar situations. Others said they had sent reminders to officers to avoid getting involved in such cases.
New York’s Port Authority Police, which patrol LaGuardia, JFK International and Newark Liberty International airports, reminded officers that in cases of overbooking they ”will not assist in the physical removal of the passenger from the flight to accommodate the airline’s request,” said Joe Pentangelo, Port Authority police spokesman.
Atlanta airport officers also would not have boarded the plane as O‘Hare’s police did, said Lane Hagan, airport precinct commander with the Atlanta Police Department, which oversees security at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, America’s busiest airport.
The view was echoed by all airports contacted by Reuters, although most would not comment on the United incident.
”It couldn’t just be, ‘Oh, we have an overbooked flight,’” said Doug Yakel, spokesman at San Francisco International Airport.
Chicago Department of Aviation officials have said the incident is under investigation and declined to comment. They have not discussed the incident in detail, citing pending litigation.
According to a report released on Monday by the city, which is in charge of airport security, the three officers involved said Dao became combative after they unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to leave.
However, at a Chicago City Council committee meeting this month, Deputy Commissioner of Security Jeff Redding said department policy calls for its officers not to board planes to handle customer service issues.
Ordering a passenger who is not causing trouble to leave the plane so another person can take their seat would not constitute a lawful order, said John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who has followed the United case closely.
A carrier’s need for seats is not among more than a dozen reasons that allows the airline to remove an already-seated passenger, he said.
“Law enforcement should not become involved unless it appears there is a danger to the safety or health of passengers, crew or the airplane,” Banzhaf said. (Additional reporting by Laila Kearney and Gina Cherelus in New York, Editing by Ben Klayman)