Fight or flight?

By | May 17th, 1999

All Akiko Mitsui asked for was the name of the flight attendant who wouldn’t let her stow her bag in the overhead compartment.

But instead of getting an answer, she got kicked off the flight from New Orleans to New York.

The Continental crewmember responded, “That’s it. You’re outta here!” according to Mitsui.

“The plane was backing up, then stopped, and then went back to the jetway,” says the 5-foot-4-inch charity worker from New York.

“A Continental supervisor marched to the back of the plane where I was sitting to take me off. When I noted to him that I have luggage checked and said ‘Excuse me’ to the lady sitting next to me, he said, ‘Shut up and get moving!’ Then he told me he was going to report me to the FAA and that I must have done something ‘really serious’ to deserve this.”

What had Mitsui done? She says she balked when the flight attendant demanded that she check her regulation-size carry-on.

Continental won’t comment on the incident, except to say that its crewmembers are trained to handle disruptive passengers and that it’s unusual for someone to get kicked off a plane.

But lately, it seems, passengers are getting removed – or are being threatened with removal – more frequently. It’s no mystery why. Crewmembers now work in an almost constant state of fear that a passenger will lash out at them in a fit of air rage.

Their unions and airlines are backing them as never before, offering training, support and often giving them the authority to kick a passenger off a flight at their discretion.

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Mitsui isn’t the only one who has been tossed off a flight for seemingly trivial reasons. Passenger Dan Rothman reports a similar experience on a recent American Airlines flight.

“I was asking the flight attendant where to put my luggage and I got so offended by his tone of voice that I asked him, ‘Why are you being so rude? His response was to have me removed from the aircraft. “It was totally outrageous. His supervisor said ‘I have to ask you to leave’ and when I said I was simply trying to find out where to put my bag and the flight attendant was being rude, she said ‘I have to support my crew.'”

I asked American Airlines about the case, and again, they wouldn’t comment on it. However, the carrier later apologized to Rothman, promised to look into the matter and offered a voucher for future travel on American Airlines. “Pretty pathetic effort at compensation on their part,” he said.

American spokesman John Hotard confirmed that the airline is taking a harder line when it comes to potential problem passengers. “The company has done a complete 180-degree turn, from an attitude of ‘the customer is always right’ to ‘the customer is not always right,'” he told me. “We started backing the flight crews in disputes with passengers.”

He added that the point of American’s new policy isn’t to remove unruly customers as much as it is to prevent them from boarding the plane in the first place. Even so, he says “more passengers have been removed from flights in the last two years than any time before that.”

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Continental hasn’t codified its pro-flight attendant policy to the same extent as American, airline spokeswoman Sarah Anthony says. “We deal with these issues on a case-by-case scenario. I have to point out, though, that the vast majority of our passengers are good customers.”

I checked in with several flight attendants’ unions – the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents Continental’s flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which handles American’s crewmembers, and the Association of Flight Attendants – and found a uniform attitude.

“This is an issue that we’re very concerned about,” says the AFA’s Cynthia Kain.

In addition to advising her membership to report any troublesome passengers, her organization is throwing its weight behind a proposed law that would increase the penalty for crew interference to $25,000 and a one-year ban on traveling on a commercial flight. The present penalty ranges from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the severity of the incident.

My position on airline safety has always been that you can never be safe enough. Would I want to fly with a violent passenger? No. Would I want a flight attendant to intercept someone they thought could turn into a violent passenger? Absolutely. But I think that in these two cases, the crewmembers may have overreacted. They may have had a bad day and taken it out on a passenger who just didn’t follow their orders quickly enough.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two incidents were about luggage. If airlines and, ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration, doesn’t comprehensively address the carry-on crisis, I guarantee that we’ll see more conflicts over baggage.

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In the meantime, I think the airlines should review the broad power they’ve given crewmembers to expel passengers at their whim. Because sooner or later, they’re going to remove someone who had every right to fly. And they’ll pay up – in court.

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