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Emanuel says airport officials doing ‘thorough investigation’ of United passenger removal

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday said his aviation commissioner is working with United Airlines to avoid a repeat of the now-infamous violent removal of a passenger from a flight at O’Hare International Airport, but it’s unclear what that entails.

The mayor declined to take questions on the United issue while dedicating a street sign in honor of Cubs second baseman Javier Baez in Humboldt Park on Tuesday, including whether the city would look into the situation.

Later, Emanuel’s press shop issued a statement attributed to the mayor.

"Anyone who saw that video had the same reaction: this was completely unacceptable at every level," the mayor’s statement reads. "I appreciate that (Aviation Commissioner) Ginger (Evans) took swift action at the Department of Aviation, and her team is already hard at work on a thorough investigation — in partnership with the airline — to ensure nothing like this ever happens again."

At City Hall, aldermen plan to add their voices to the international outcry with a hearing.

Aviation Committee Chairman Ald. Michael Zalewski, 23rd, said he wants to hear from airport officials and United representatives Thursday about the situation, in which a passenger was dragged from a Louisville, Ky.-bound plane by aviation police Sunday after he refused to give up his seat so an airline employee could sit in it. Cellphone video taken by other passengers and shared online led to worldwide criticism of the airline and the officer.

The airline officer who pulled the man out of his seat and down the aisle of the plane has been put on leave of absence by the city.

Zalewski said he might seek to establish city rules to avoid similar problems in the future, though it’s not clear what authority the City Council has to dictate policies to the airlines. "First thing, people deserve to hear what happened, and what they plan to do to avoid this in the future," Zalewski said.

"There are three sides to every story, and we want to hear them," he said. "It sure seems like it should have been handled in the gate area, not on the plane."

Zalewski said he plans to hold a special hearing on the situation following the regular Aviation Committee meeting Thursday afternoon.

"And United really needs to be put on the hot seat here," he added. "The company CEO put out a statement saying the situation was handled properly, but I didn’t see much that was handled properly there.

"This has been a black eye for the city. People are talking about this all over the world," the veteran alderman said. "We need to hear from the Aviation Department and the airline about how to make sure this doesn’t happen again."

United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement Monday: "I apologize for having to reaccommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened."

Zalewski said this incident further weakens the push by airport police to carry guns. Airport police have argued to be allowed to carry firearms for years, but the city has long opposed such a move and it hasn’t gained much traction at City Hall.

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @_johnbyrne