Kicked off my flight for wearing an eye mask

usair1Michael Winn is the president of a private university, a US Airways frequent flier, and according to at least one flight attendant, an imminent threat to security. Why else would he have kicked Winn off a recent flight from Charlotte to Phoenix?

As I read Winn’s complaint and the response from US Airways — I’ll get to those in a sec — I had two thoughts: This is either a case study in what not to do if you’re seated in an exit row. Or it’s yet another example of flight attendants abusing their post-9/11 powers. Or maybe both.

Either way, I’m not wearing my eyemask until after takeoff, and I’m going to be extra nice to my crewmember on my next flight — especially if it’s on US Airways.

Here’s Winn’s story.

I was sitting in an exit row in a window seat, and a steward — a male in his late 40’s or early 50’s — had asked me to remove the eye mask from my eyes and move the seat forward in preparation for takeoff, to which I immediately complied.

However, after that, the pilot announced a mechanical problem and delay with the door. I put the seat back and the eye mask back on to rest, as I had not had any sleep that night and had to get up at 4 a.m. to fly from Asheville to Charlotte. I have seen these delays last an hour or longer.

The situation escalated when another passenger asked for a favor.

The passenger in my row, in the aisle seat, asked the steward if she could move a friend into the empty middle seat.

Steward replied, “Yes, but only after takeoff.” Steward then looked at me, and said, “You will of course have to move your small handbag from the empty middle seat to make room for the passenger.”

I said I would prefer to wait until the new passenger actually arrived. The handbag was a cloth bag, about the size of a paperback book. Steward then changed his request: “You need to move that bag now, in case it goes flying about – can I put it up above for you?”

I said I prefer to hold it on my lap, and wrapped its cloth strap around my wrist and laid it on my lap, as it held my wallet. Note that the steward did NOT say, “I’m sorry, but plane regulations require you put your wallet up above.” I knew of course that larger bags could not be held in an exit row during takeoff.

Strangely, the steward pointed his finger at me, with thumb raised up in the air as if it were a pistol, and said, “It looks like you and I are in for a conflict.” Then he walked away. I dismissed it as odd behavior, or maybe a poor attempt at humor.

It was no joke. Winn says he was escorted from the plane. “I was threatened with arrest and deplaned for wearing an eyemask,” he told me.

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Eventually, US Airways rebooked him on the next flight to Phoenix.

So what does the airline say about the incident? Winn sent an email to the company asking it to address the incident. Here’s what it told him:

Thank you for contacting Customer Relations at US Airways. We are sorry you were unable to take your originally scheduled flight. We are in receipt of your explanation and concern regarding the situation on Flight 306, September 1, 2009 in Charlotte.

Through our investigation and from internal reports of the incident you described, it appears our personnel view this encounter from a different perspective. When there is any question as to a passenger’s behavior, the Captain has the authority to deny travel. We have an obligation to all our customers to provide them with professional service carried out in a safe, secure environment.

Our reports indicate the Captain of Flight supported the recommendation, and we uphold that decision.

In other words, you probably were interfering with the flight crew. Go away.

Not to go all academic on you, but I’m struck by the way words are being used in this dispute. Winn’s use of the archaic term “steward” suggest he spent a lot of time flying before airline deregulation, when flight attendants were there to serve you, primarily. And US Airways capitalization of the words “captain” and “flight” suggests it has an inflated sense of self-importance. No wonder Winn is getting nowhere with his complaint.

My recommendation? I would take the $400,000 he spends on travel with US Airways every year and find another carrier. The airline had a chance to review his complaint and respond, and its terse rebuttal suggests it no longer values his business.

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(Photo: San Diego Shooter/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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