Tennis Star Zhang Shuai Slams United Airlines Over Flight Dispute

By Bridget O'Donnell, June 8, 2017

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UPDATE (June 9, 2017 at 3.20pm CST): United has released a statement addressing the issue:

"We're disappointed anytime a customer has an experience that doesn't measure up to their expectations. We deeply apologize ... as what this customer describes does not reflect the positive customer experience we strive to offer."

Meanwhile, state media have begun reporting on the incident. People's Daily's take: "United bullying passenger again."

United Airlines is in hot water again, this time with Chinese tennis player Zhang Shuai.

In two separate rants posted to social media today — one on Weibo (Chinese) and one on Facebook (English) — Zhang alleged that she was mistreated by a female United Airlines staff member before boarding flight UA735 from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Washington-Dulles on Tuesday, en route to Beijing.

READ MORE: Zhang Shuai Becomes a Sensation After Aussie Open Upset

The incident comes just two months after a controversial high-profile incident, in which a man was forcibly dragged off a United flight, went viral. A month later, a passenger in a "Make America Great Again" hat caused a ruckus on a United flight from Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

The Tianjin star claimed the employee confiscated her tennis bag, telling her that it was too large and needed to be registered as checked baggage:

"At the gate, a UA female staff... said my tennis bag exceeded the maximum measurement size and took away my bag without my permission. When I took out a shoulder bag from the tennis bag, she said I now have 3 carry-ons and only 2 are allowed! So I put the shoulder bag back into the tennis bag, but she claimed the bag now is too big! I started with 2 carry-ons, one tennis bag and one backpack, both of which fit into the measurement scale for carry-on bags, but she refused to let me board with the tennis bag. She even manually stretched out and fully expanded my tennis bag with air and empty space so that it would appear to exceed the maximum length of a carry-on, and she took a photo of it as proof that it doesn’t meet the size requirement! The tennis bag would fit the overhead luggage cabin on the aircraft, and I took the same carry-on bags on my trip from Paris to the U.S. just 2 days ago!"

Zhang Shuai Tennis

Zhang said the woman then "physically grabbed" her boarding pass and passport, telling her that she would be prohibited from entering the plane if she tried to bring the tennis bag on board with her. 

Zhang Shuai
Zhang Shuai had just been defeated in the French Open last week.

Other passengers reportedly went in in to help:

"A female passenger on the same flight who I don’t know couldn’t stand the UA staff’s aggressive verbal and physical manner, so she walked over and helped to retrieve my bag for me, only to be stopped by the staff. The UA staff then questioned the passenger’s motive and relationship with me and asked for her identity! She was relentless. She walked over to remind me that I would not be allowed to board unless I check in my tennis bag! She said all passengers on the same flight were opposing my taking the tennis bag as a carry-on, even though I think most of the passengers wanted to help me. I told the UA staff I would take the tennis bag as a carry-on if all passengers support it, but she said NO even if every passenger supports it! I feel she was purposely trying to intimidate me!"

After finally agreeing to check the bag, Zhang claimed that the employee told her to divide up her five tennis rackets and two small bags into seven separate pieces of luggage. 

Zhang Shuai tennis

Commenting on the incident, Zhang said:

"I’ve been traveling almost every week for many years, and I’ve NEVER run into anything like what happened today! Most of the tennis players take their tennis bags as carry-ons when they fly. I felt having been poorly treated by United Airlines, even as a Premier 1K club member, and by this UA staff in particular, to some extent discriminated by her! Even though it is not close to the same scale as the other UA incidence where a passenger was dragged and injured which have caught public attention from the globe, I for the first time truly felt the extremely terrible and disgusting customer service of United Airlines!"

Zhang's Weibo post picked up over 6,000 likes, and more than 2,000 comments and shares. 

Zhang Shuai United Airlines

"The United States is a rich rogue country," read one of the most popular comments on the post.

"All Chinese people should collectively boycott the airline," said another.

Meanwhile, plenty of commenters showed support on Zhang's Facebook page.

READ MORE: The Chinese Community Just Discovered United Airlines Passenger is Actually Vietnamese

Zhang later shared the post on Twitter, writing: "This is how @UnitedAirlines treats a @WTA player!" In response, a user claiming to witness the situation posted that Zhang was "misrepresenting the situation:"

United Airlines Zhang Shuai

United Airlines Zhang Shuai

United apologized to Zhang via Twitter, though no other further statements have been released.

Zhang lost to Russian player Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round of the French Open last week. 

[Images via Zhang Shuai, Twitter, China Daily, CGTN]

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