Are flight attendants on a power trip?

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As far as ridiculous stories go, Nina Radkiewicz’ ranks right up there with the best of ’em. Or, depending on your perspective, the worst of ’em.

The stay-at-home mom was flying from Phoenix to Mexico City on US Airways with her three kids recently when she had a nasty confrontation with two airline employees. Seems there was “no room” for her regulation-size carry-on bag — the one with all her electronics and valuables — and a crewmember ordered her to check it.

“The bag fit under the seat in front of me,” says Radkiewicz. “The overhead bins were half-empty. I have pictures.”

Maybe Radkiewicz remembers the many US Airways stories I’ve reported, including this one, involving forcibly gate-checked luggage that was lost. Airlines don’t compensate passengers for valuables, including electronics and jewelry, in checked bags.

Full disclosure: more than a decade ago I was fired for reporting about — and then harshly criticizing — US Airways for failing to compensate a passenger after a similar gate-checking incident. Yet here I am today, still reporting on the subject.

Radkiewicz’ experience, and others like it, do make me wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point in the already frayed relationship between passengers and crewmembers. Federal law says that disobeying the instructions of the flight crew is a crime. But have some flight attendants taken it a little too far? Let’s review the details of Radkiewicz’s story, and there’s a little twist at the end of it, so you’ll want to stick around for that.

Before we continue, let’s talk about the airline’s side of the story. I could contact US Airways and ask for a statement, but I can tell you what it will say: “Rules are rules, and we stand behind the decision of our employees.” That’s fine, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there’s another perspective that, even if I ask, will remain untold.

Radkiewicz was boarding the flight when a supervising gate agent approached her on the jet bridge and said that there was “no room” on the flight for her carry-on bag.

“That’s OK,” she said. “It fits under the seat in front of me.”

A flight attendant then came out on the jet bridge and said that it would not fit because the plane had life vests and limited space under the seat.

Radkiewicz was faced with a difficult choice. She could give up the bag, which contained her iPad, Nook, passports, notarized letters, jewelry, and makeup. But on a flight to Mexico City? Not a bright idea.

She said she preferred to take the next flight.

The flight attendant pulled out a trash bag and said that she could place her valuables in it.

“I said again, ‘I will not go without my bag,’ and I started to cry,” she recalls.

“At this point, the supervising gate agent said she was going to call the paramedics because I was getting ‘hysterical’,” Radkiewicz says. “She then threatened me by telling me that she would tell the pilot and that he could remove me from the flight if I did not calm down.”

Reluctantly, Radkiewicz boarded the flight. And wouldn’t you know it, the full trash bag fit “perfectly” under the seat. It was almost as if the gate agent and attendant had forced her to go through the exercise just because they could. Surely, they knew there was plenty of overhead bin space on the flight.

“I feel airline personnel were overly hostile in the situation,” she says. “So much so that my two daughters were trembling when we sat down. That is not right.”

No, it’s not. Radkiewicz contacted the airline in writing, but it hasn’t responded to her complaint. Under most circumstances, I might look at a case like this and say, “You know what? Maybe she did overreact a little. I’m going to let this case slide.”

But here’s the kicker: Radkiewicz is a former flight attendant.

“I would never have treated a passenger like this,” she says. “I was ambushed and bullied by the employees.”

I’m hearing more words like “bullying” when it comes to the interaction between airline employees and passengers. In fact, I’ve experienced the strong-arming firsthand. In my case, it was an overzealous airline publicist who thought that making threats would improve my coverage of his airline. It had the exact opposite effect.

I wonder if they’re doing it simply because they know they can. I mean, if you had carte blanche to order your customers around, the absolute backing of your employer and union, and the knowledge that even if a customer like Radkiewicz wanted to take her business elsewhere, what would you do?

Are flight attendants on a power trip?

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