“Let’s go out on the tarmac and deal with this, just you and I, right here, right now”

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By Christopher Elliott

Depending on your point of view, Sean Hillen’s case is either an example of an airline crewmember on a power trip or a passenger behaving badly. Or maybe both.

Hillen wants me to mediate his case with American Airlines after he and his wife were removed from an American Airlines flight from Santo Domingo to Miami.

When the Hillens boarded American flight 662 on Feb. 27, he asked a “steward” for help stowing his bags. The crewmember refused.

Incident with flight attendant

“He said loudly in front of a line of boarding passengers, ‘I don’t help with baggage. I’ve worked for this airline 22 years and have had two back operations’,” says Hillen. “When I asked him what his job was then on board, he retorted, again quite loudly, ‘To carry passengers off burning planes.'”

Hillen says he was shocked by the “rather uncouth” response. He asked to attendant how he could possibly save someone from a burning plane if he couldn’t lift a bag into the overhead bin. That didn’t go over well.

“He said aggressively, ‘Let’s go out on the tarmac and deal with this, just you and I, right here, right now’,” Hillen remembers.

Confrontation leads to passenger’s removal from plane

Hillen says he stopped talking to the attendant, “sensing something was amiss with him.” He walked to his seat, sat down next to his wife, and told her what happened.

“Suddenly, this steward was bending over me, his face close to mine, repeating over and over, ‘Zip it, da’ya here, zip it. Or I’ll have you thrown off the plane. Just zip it’,” he says.

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Hillen asked for the flight attendant’s name, and soon a supervisor was on the scene, warning him to “not be aggressive” with the crew.

Then, just before takeoff, he and his wife were escorted off the plane.

He adds,

Of course, I asked why and was simply told the steward had requested it. I asked to speak to the captain and was brought to the cockpit. The captain said he did not know what the situation was all about but that both the steward and purser had requested my removal and that he had to do so.

Several passengers seated around us complained verbally, saying the situation was completely unfair, one passenger even standing up and threatening to leave the plane also.

Hillen complained to American. Its response? It stood behind the decision to expel him and his wife.

In the carefully considered opinion of our personnel, there were indications that your behavior was disruptive and a potential distraction to our in-flight personnel carrying out their duties, and we acted accordingly. We have the responsibility and authority to take necessary action to ensure the safety of our flights and the customers aboard them.

More specifically it was reported that you had become confrontational with our male crew-member over the issue of your carry-on luggage. As our female purser became involved in an attempt to defuse matters, this demanding and antagonistic demeanor was ultimately witnessed by her as well. The captain intervened and it was determined that you should not travel on Flight 662 that day.

Flight attendants are the authority in the passenger cabins and it is important to remain compliant with their directives at all times. This authority is supported by Federal Air Regulation 91.11 which indicates that persons who appear threatening, intimidating, or otherwise interfering with a flight crew member are subject to serious consequences, the least of which is to be removed from a flight. It is apparent that you were able to travel on another American Airlines flight to Miami that same day.

Hillen appealed this rejection, but American held fast

“We’ve reviewed this situation in accordance with our reports, and our company policies and procedures,” it wrote to him. “Our position, however, has not changed and remains as described in our March 13 letter to you. We must decline to settle this issue as you have suggested.”

What could American do, other than apologize and maybe offer the Hillens a voucher or a few frequent flier miles? Not much, probably. But it’s the principle that seems to matter here. (Related: Rudeness runs rampant for travelers, is it your fault?)

Oh, and there’s one more thing I forgot to mention: Hillen isn’t just any passenger. He’s an author and journalist. That lends some credibility to his version of the story, at least in his estimation. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

I’m not sure if my involvement would change the outcome of this case, but I’m willing to try — if you think I should.

Update: I’ve contacted American. I’ll have an update when I hear back.

Should I mediate Sean Hillen's case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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