Up in the air: Who is torturing whom?

skySandra Mennitto watched a flight attendant torture a passenger for almost two hours on a recent trip from Chicago and Harrisburg, Pa.

Well, not torture in the Zero Dark Thirty sense of the word. But almost as painful, she says.

“A gentleman behind me had a full leg cast,” she remembers. For comfort, he had stretched the affected leg into the aisle. And that’s when the attendant stopped him.

“She talked down to him,” says Mennitto. “She said, ‘Just get it out of the aisle.’ In severe pain, he forced his leg around and held it [below the seat].”

But after reviewing this incident and another like it, I wonder: Who’s torturing whom?

Are flight attendants behaving like petty tyrants on the plane, sometimes at the cost of our comfort, or are air travelers driving airline employees to it?

Mennitto’s “stewardess” — at least, that’s how she described the flight attendant — was definitely having a bad day. She made an in-flight announcement that no one could understand because of a faulty PA system, and when passengers complained that they had no idea what she was saying, she shrugged them off.

“It’s bad enough that airlines treat passengers like cattle, without any comforts or respect, but now they seem to treat the passengers like prisoners with no rights or recourse,” Mennitto adds. “I spoke to other passengers on the flight and they all agreed that they were afraid to say anything in fear of getting kicked off the flight.”

Call me “doctor”

Mennitto’s story reminded me of another recent confrontation between a flight attendant and a passenger, which was mediated by my colleague John Yates at the Chicago Tribune.

It involved Barbara Brotine, an internist from Evanston, Ill., who argued with a JetBlue flight attendant about the size of her carry-on bag before a recent departure. After the attendant questioned Brotine’s ability to fit the bag under her seat, and the passenger showed her it could be done, Brotine said, “It would be nice if you apologized to me.”

That didn’t sit well with the crewmember. A few moments later, the attendant stopped by her seat again.

“She says, ‘Miss?’ and I look up. And she said, ‘Miss, I just wanted you to know that my name is Tina so you can tell my supervisors about me,'” Brotine said.

That upset Brotine even more.

“I said, ‘My (title) is doctor, so you can address me as that, and I want an apology.”

But instead of apologizing, a man who said he was with “security” materialized next to her seat and escorted her off the plane because she had been deemed a security threat.

Eventually, after Yates decided to cover the story, JetBlue refunded Brotine’s entire airfare.

Sympathy for flight attendants?

You’d think that most readers would criticize the flight attendant for having a passenger removed. But you’d be wrong. Most of the readers sided with JetBlue and its crewmember.

Cathy Kim says she was offended by Brotine’s “sense of entitlement.” She “played the doctor card,” she adds. “She used it to try and make the flight attendant feel inferior — and that says something right there about her character.”

That got me thinking about the whole flight attendants versus passengers debate, which has been raging since long before I started covering this business.

Who’s wrong? Is it the unappreciated flight attendants who don’t get paid until the flight pushes back, and who are sometimes still called “stewardesses” by passengers? Or is it the stressed-out, sensory-deprived air travelers sitting in too-small seats, who are told they are breaking federal law if they don’t follow the instructions of their flight crew?

Of course, the attendant on Mennitto’s regional flight could have handled the situation better. She could have gently explained to the man in the cast that Federal Aviation Administration regulations required her to keep the aisles clear, and she might have tried to reseat him for his comfort.

Was Brotine a threat to flight security? Of course not. Should she have been kicked off her flight. Apparently, that’s debatable.

On the flip side, the guy in the cast could have called his airline’s special services desk and made arrangements to fly with his disability. Airlines do care about your comfort – at least that’s what they tell me. Likewise, Brotine could have brushed off the attendant’s comments about her carry-on luggage.

Point is, for every horror story a passenger has to tell, there’s probably an equally compelling horror story from a flight attendant.

My job title – consumer advocate – says I need to side with the customer. But sometimes, flight attendants have my sympathy.

Sometimes, they deserve yours, too.

Who is suffering more on the plane?

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