It was difficult to watch. The video of a helpless passenger on a United Airlines flight being roughed up and dragged off a plane to the horror of other passengers. What was United Airlines thinking? And no, he wasn't a terrorist, or a hijacker, or a non-paying customer. He did not abuse or threaten airline staff or passengers. He simply asserted his right to refuse to give up the seat he paid for to airline staff. Is the passenger always wrong and what does this say about the state of customer service in the airline industry?

Man dragged off plane for refusing to "volunteer"

The airline initially said that passengers on the United Express Flight 3411 in Chicago were asked to voluntary give up their seats and take another flight as they were fully booked. However, it was soon revealed that passengers were removed so that their own staff could be seated. When enough passengers did not volunteer, the staff called law enforcement to randomly select passengers and force them off the plane. According to reports, the man was a doctor who needed to be at the hospital in the morning and did not want to get off the plane. Videos posted on Social media after the incident, captured the passenger being forcefully removed from his seat, bloodied and dragged down the aisle of the plane.

A callous reaction by United Airlines

A screaming passenger being dragged off the plane was what passengers saw and heard and the world did as well. You can hear a female passenger yelling at the officers to stop. Social media was on fire in the aftermath of the actions taken by United Airlines. The company waffled between a half-hearted generalised apology, providing justifications for their actions and blaming the victim.

The CEO, Oscar Munoz apologised for having to "re-accommodate these customers" and another one for "the upsetting event" but there was no direct apology to the injured customer. Instead, he compliment the staff in a separate note by saying "While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right,”

Blaming the customer

It was all the passenger's fault, the Airline seemed to suggest.

When you treat your customers like criminals I guess you play the blame game. In United Airlines' account of the incident, they accused the man of being belligerent and disruptive. I guess that is what not "volunteering" is now called. They go on to say that the passenger was told to leave politely but defied the crew and staff.

A question of race?

The passenger being dragged out of the plane appeared to be Asian and many are questioning whether a white passenger would have been treated this way. At least people in one country, China, thinks the action was racially motivated. The news of the man's plight quickly trended on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, attracting 85 million readers and thousands of comments.

There is also a petition to boycott the airline which has gone viral on We Chat. This could be problematic for a company that calls itself the top American carrier to China.

The backlash

It is the second time in a month that United Airlines has been criticised for its poor treatment of customers. The backlash came fast and furious with some calling for a boycott of the carrier. Others weighed in on social media severely criticising the handling of the incident and their response to it. But more serious to their bottom line is that their shares fell 4% following the incident.

Flying at your own risk

It is important that customers flying on United Airlines or any other airline know their rights and read the fine print on their tickets.

Otherwise, passengers are flying at their own risk. It is also critical that passengers understand that they could also be victims and encounter a similar situation. This could happen to anyone and you need to ask yourself if you want to risk it. When asked to give up your seat, you really don't have an option; you either comply are be forcefully removed. Isn't it time that customers remind airlines who pays them and the age old tenant that the customer is always right?