A midair confrontation leaves a passenger speechless

Benjamin Levine is still trying to make sense of a confrontation with a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight from London to Dallas.

Adding to his confusion: a passive-aggressive response from the airline that stopped short of an apology. He turned to our advocates for help sorting it out.

First, a few details about Levine. He’s a physician and administrator, and by his own description, a polite and mild-mannered passenger. Most important, he’s an American Airlines Platinum frequent flier and was sitting in business class when the altercation happened.

You’d think the airline would be quick to apologize to such a high-value passenger and do whatever it takes to make it up to him. But like Levine, you’d be wrong.

Levine had a bulkhead row seat, one of the most coveted seats on the aircraft. When the plane took off at 3 p.m., the cabin crew served a meal, and then Levine’s seatmate fell fast asleep.

“Since I had to work the next day seeing patients, it was very important to me to try to reset my internal clock to Central Time as quickly as possible, and there is compelling scientific research that the best way to do this is to be exposed to natural light, which resets circadian rhythms,” he says. “My row mate was quite comfortable leaving the window open, and wore an eye mask, so we agreed to leave it open.”

About two hours later, as he was working, a flight attendant climbed over him and slammed the window shade down.

“When I asked her to please leave it open, she rudely responded, ‘Can’t you see that your row mate is sleeping?’ When I politely pointed out that he had been sleeping quietly for two hours and was clearly not bothered, she pivoted and said that another passenger behind me had asked for the window shade to be pulled down.”

Levine said he “gently” pushed back, asking if it was typical for a passenger in another seat to have control over his window.

“She exhaled loudly and aggressively,” he reports. “She started yelling at me, pointing her finger in my face, right against my nose, saying that if I didn’t shut up, she was going to call the police when we landed and have me forcibly detained on the ground.”

He adds,

She kept repeating over and over again: “Do you understand? Do not say another word!”

I found this extraordinarily strange, as I was sitting quietly in my seat, not speaking or acting in a threatening manner, and not even challenging her authority -– just trying to keep my window shade open so I could be as alert as possible to take care of patients the next day. This was my main reason for me purchasing a business class ticket.

Levine asked to speak with the purser; his request was denied. So he walked to the back of the plane himself and found the supervisor, who was “quite responsive and after a fair amount of discussion, moved the flight attendant to another part of the plane.”

Levine describes the incident as an “assault.” He says the only reason he didn’t go to the police was that the purser defused the situation.

“However, I was so flustered that I could not work for the rest of the flight, essentially ruining a quite expensive ticket,” he says.

So what now?

A brief, polite, written complaint usually works best for complicated grievances like this one. After calling American and discussing the issue with a representative, that’s exactly what Levine did. Here’s American’s response:

Your report of confrontation with our crew member is serious to us, and we have treated the matter accordingly.

It is our policy to look at the whole picture, as we are sure you will agree that an internal review is the only fair and reasonable way to address concerns of this nature.

Your report was shared with the appropriate Manager in our Flight Services Department and the matter was discussed with the crew member you identified.

She reported that she was in fact reacting to a request from another passenger to have your window shade lowered, and she found that you responded to her in an aggressive manner.

She reported that you quickly became rather loud and threatening in your tone with her over the issue of the window shade.

As discussed, flight attendants are the ultimate 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.

Nevertheless, by your account of matters it is apparent that she may have been less-than diplomatic in her approach to the situation. Accordingly, we have counseled with our crew member to ensure an understanding of how certain words or actions may be interpreted by our customers.

We have emphasized the importance of courtesy and effective communication, especially in handling problems. We have reviewed our procedures for properly addressing similar issues that may arise in the future.

Please be assured that we have used your feedback in a constructive manner; however, as a matter of policy, we do not enlist our employees in the conveyance of personal apologies after-the-fact. We appreciate your understanding.

Dr. Levine, we truly value your loyalty and support and are eager to continue the beneficial relationship we have developed to date. We are all working hard to ensure that every flight you take on American is enjoyable and that your every contact with our people is pleasant and productive. Please continue to travel with us often.

His response?

“I must admit that I am quite offput by being accused by the flight attendant as being the aggressor, and by AA hiding behind the Federal Air Regulation 91.11 as if I was a villain putting the plane at risk,” he says. “I am a 59-year-old professor of medicine, and can’t remember when anyone spoke to me in such a rude and threatening fashion. There is no possible way that anyone could have found my asking a few questions about my window shade in any way putting the plane or other passengers at risk. It reminds me of the current dialogue going around the country about the authority of the police and shooting unarmed individuals.”

Levine just wants an apology and he wants American to try to make things right for him. Remember, he’s a top-level elite who bought a business-class ticket. The airline went through all the trouble to segment its passengers with its deceptive loyalty programs; why can’t it now lavish this elite with apologies, miles and vouchers?

I haven’t asked American about this case yet. I told Levine I would bring his case to you, this site’s readers, and ask what you think. Should I advocate for him to get more than a defensive email? Or is there enough reason to believe that the flight attendant’s account is accurate, and that he was the aggressor? (And if that’s true, then maybe he should be apologizing to American?)

I don’t know. There’s something about this case that just feels wrong. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe you can.

Should I take Benjamin Levine's case?

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