Airline Staff Must Be Made Accountable For Their Lies and False Accusations

We need to make airline staff accountable for their actions when they falsely accuse passengers of various imaginary crimes.

By all means, if a passenger is behaving outrageously, the full force of the law should be brought down on the passenger’s head.

Here’s a recent example of outrageous behavior in which the passenger in question deserves everything he gets.  Plenty more examples of truly bad passengers also exist.

But what about the cases where the outrageous behavior is actually on the part of the airline staff (pictured above is Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who swore at a passenger over the PA then opened the emergency exit and rode the slide to the ground, beer in hand)?

Happily, Slater confined his ‘out of the box’ thinking to simply swearing at everyone on the plane and then leaving it, albeit in an unconvenientional manner.  But what happens when a flight attendant instead pro-actively lodges a complaint about a passenger, getting in first with a set of lies, so as to either ‘punish’ the passenger they have taken a capricious disliking to, and/or to destroy the passenger’s credibility in anticipation of the passenger filing a complaint against them?

Please read this blog entry for an egregious case where a flight attendant appeared to be spoiling for a fight all flight long, and ended up lodging a ridiculous complaint against a hapless passenger who – at least based on his account – had done nothing wrong.  After he was arrested upon the flight’s arrival into Dublin, the flight attendant then said she was ‘too upset’ to fill out a formal complaint with the police, then after ignoring phone calls from the police for several weeks, eventually decided not to file a complaint at all!

You can read on, here, for an interesting follow up about how this situation evolved with the aggrieved passenger seeking some sort of redress from the airline, and failing dismally (of course) in his efforts.

Instead, he has to assure the offending airline that he’ll be well behaved in the future before they will allow him on other flights!  Being as how he was probably perfectly well behaved on the flight that got him arrested, this is simultaneously an easy thing for him to agree to and a ridiculous requirement.

There are too many cases where a flight attendant will call the police and set them loose on a passenger for the most ridiculous and capricious of reasons.  And it isn’t just complaints about things like ‘he said he had a bomb and was going to blow the plane up’ or ‘he was loud and aggressive and argumentative and swearing’ or ‘he was smoking in the toilet’ or ‘he was urinating on other passengers’ (as was the case first mentioned, above) – because those sorts of complaints require a flight attendant to have confirming statements from nearby passengers, and so are generally well founded.

Then there are the non-offences that can still get us arrested for ‘failing to follow the orders of a uniformed member of the crew’, almost without reference to how sensible or stupid the orders may be.  ‘She refused to delete the video she had filmed of the inside of the plane’s cabin’ got a woman arrested – since when has filming inside a plane been a crime?  Look at the hundreds if not thousands of Youtube videos showing plane interiors!  So although the woman was probably within her rights to film in the plane, because a flight attendant said ‘You can’t do that – delete it now!’ all of a sudden, the woman who had been filming became guilty of the ‘offense’ of trying to assert her lawful rights!

Wait, it gets worse.  Now we come to the category of things such as when the flight attendant says ‘he was looking at me aggressively’ and ‘I felt nervous and afraid’ and ‘he seemed unstable/drunk/aggressive’ – these things are not facts, but judgment calls, and they are things which seldom can be confirmed (or refuted) by other people on the plane.  Whereas the fact that they are judgment calls might suggest that the judgment of a ‘trolley dolly’ needs to be backed up by the judgment of others too, the reality is that one single trolley dolly’s allegations can get you into a world of hurt, no matter who you are or how important and respected you are off the plane.

This makes it a ‘their word against my word’ sort of thing, with the sad but almost certain reality being that the police (and, if necessary, the courts too) will tend to prefer the word of the flight attendant over the word of the passenger.  Why is that?

For one, because we’ve all flown before (including police and judges), we’ve all on occasion felt cross/angry – but hopefully have internalized it! – so we know how it is possible for people to get a bit bent out of shape, and we may have even seen or sensed unreasonable behavior around us by other passengers.  We’ve also read the pseudo-propaganda stories about ‘air rage’ – stories which seem to be in large part designed to pre-validate any flight attendant’s complaint about any passenger in the future.

So we know that bad behavior is far from unheard of on flights.

For another, you are being asked to prove a negative – something that is never easy.  ‘I wasn’t looking at her aggressively’ – how do you prove that?

Most of all, the police and court will see a flight attendant who, let’s say, has five (or one or ten or however many years) of experience, and let’s say that in each year of experience, that flight attendant flies on at least 500 flights, and in doing so, interacts with the better part of 50,000 people.  So, over five years, the flight attendant has interacted with a quarter million people – and assuming that she doesn’t lodge accusations against passengers on a regular basis, what are the chances of her suddenly deciding to capriciously lodge a complaint against you, today?

 If you want to, you could depress this number down to as few as 10,000 people a year, or probably even inflate it higher up to 100,000 or more.  However you do the sums, you’ll end up with a huge number of passenger contacts over the flight attendant’s career to date.  You, on the other hand, probably fly anywhere from two to fifty flights a year – in the same year that the flight attendant interacts with 50,000 people, you interact with 100 or fewer flight attendants.  The numbers are against you.

So, the police and court think ‘This flight attendant deals with 50,000 people every year, and after five years and 250,000 people, she is only now, for the first time ever, filing a complaint about this one passenger.’  Forget the fiction of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – the truth is that there is an unstated assumption all the way through this system that you are probably guilty.

It is even worse than this.  It seems that on some occasions the solidarity between airline employees, who often see their job in confrontational terms whereby it is all of them – the good guys – against all of us; with us being the enemy/the bad guys, means that even if another airline employee thought that their colleague was a bit out of order to lodge a complaint against you, what are they going to do?  Risk being shunned by the people they have to work with all day every day (if they tell the truth)?  Or fraudulently back up their colleague and make vaguely supporting statements to the police?  At the very least, they might wrestle with their conscience and make what they think is a neutral sounding statement, but which actually drives another nail in your coffin, by saying ‘I don’t know, I wasn’t present when the alleged behavior occurred, but I’m sure that if (my colleague) said what she said, it would be the truth and a fair observation’.

Add to that the flight’s captain, who invariably has been safely locked up in the cockpit at all relevant times, but who will then obediently do whatever his flight attendants ask him to do without bothering to check your side of the story or do anything else.  All of a sudden, you have the entire flight’s crew lined up against you, all because of the capricious actions of one employee who for whatever reason was having a bad day and took it out on you, and a tiny confrontation with one employee over a trivial matter ends up with the captain radioing for police to come and take you off the plane.

These very unfair circumstances mean two things.  The first implication should be obvious to you.  Don’t pick a fight with an airline employee – either on the ground or in the plane.  You’ll surely lose.

The second implication is that due to the (grossly misplaced) trust that the legal system places in flight attendants to ‘do the right thing’ and to tell the truth, on any occasion where there is even a suggestion that the flight attendant has failed to honor that trust, they should be closely scrutinized and severely sanctioned if their behavior is found to be less than honest.

Lastly, think about the underlying causes of some of these altercations.  Passengers failing to observe what an individual airline employee deems to be an appropriate dress code (and refusing to allow a gate agent to inspect their underwear!).  Passengers lawfully filming on board the plane.  Complaining about being given small change rather than bigger notes.  Various other matters that seem incredibly trivial, but which lead to teams of armed police taking passengers off planes, locking them up, and sometimes then charging the passenger with felony federal offenses.

How did we get to the point where we condone such unjust actions?  It surely doesn’t make us (or the planes/flights) any safer, nor does it deter terrorists from seeking to do their thing.  Imagine facing similar consequences if we sent food back in a restaurant due to it being not cooked to our satisfaction?  If we tried to return an item of clothing that didn’t fit, or which we discovered had a tear or stain on it?  If we complained about waiting too long to be served?  Maybe if the air conditioning wasn’t working in our hotel room?  And so on and so on.

In the rest of our lives, whether we’re doing something travel related or not, if we have a problem, we can complain free of fear and without risking being locked up, and the company/retailer/service provider will generally listen attentively to our problem, apologize, and endeavor to make the matter right.

What is so uniquely special about the airlines that when they have complaining passengers, they can accuse them of being potential terrorists (or not even need to make this specific accusation) and get dozens of police eagerly rushing to arrest the passenger, backed up with a willingness to file federal felony charges?

5 thoughts on “Airline Staff Must Be Made Accountable For Their Lies and False Accusations”

  1. How did we end up putting these people who are justifiably well trained in airline safety and stand at the front lines against terrorists but are not law enforcement officers (LEOs) in positions eerily similar to those of LEOs? And yet there is no check or balance on this power. They can quite simply do and say anything. At least a soldier on the battlefield can refuse to obey an unlawful order.
    Sadly, the case law is going to be years behind getting this power sorted out and many people are going to have to fight this legal battle. I really hope that I don’t end up being one of them.
    Should the unlikely happen to me (I travel about 50,000 miles a year), I will sue the Flight Attendant, the Captain, both of their Unions, any law organization that’s involved and the carrier in civil court as well as press any district attorney I can reach for slander, malicious prosecution and filing a false police report and a dozen more things that I can’t think of right now.

  2. I experienced a horrific incident on American Airlines on July 22, 2011.

    I wrote a 2 page detail account to to AA, and like Leo’s case, I was ignored.

    On July 21, 2011 I was falsely accused of a taking a picture using my smart phone in Airplane mode of a seated flight attended while in line for the bathroom. The camera may have clicked a picture accidentally while I was browsing my album. Even if the camera did take a picture, it is not against the law or any posted policy of AA.

    The flight attendant went ballistic on me, physically jammed me into the vestibule and blocked me from going to the bathroom, and called his buddy flight attendant in first class to join him in the bullying and intimidation. They were aggressive and wicked to me. I told them I hadn’t taken any pictures of him, but the first attendant kept screaming at me to delete the picture.

    I was forced to go back to my seat, which I did, and they both threatened to have me arrested when landing in St. Maarten and said I would spend my entire vacation in prison. The passenger next to me was wildly outraged and continuously complained on my behalf, even though he was a total stanger. Other passengers began to argue on my behalf too.

    The flight crew came back to my seat yet again even after I had sat in silence for some time and cried, they said I was making it worse for myself.

    I was escorted off the plane by 5 policemen as I landed and walked off the plane and held in custody for several hours, forced to surrender my phone for inspection. They violated my 4th Amendment Right to Privacy on land in St. Maarten, and even the government is required to have a search warrant, otherwise it is theft or coercion.

    Of course they did not find anything after several hours, as I waited under St. Maarten airport police. Finally, after sitting in terror all by myself with no advocates or legal representation, an American Airlines representative came back to return my phone. He then apologized for the misunderstanding.

    While in St. Maarten I went into shock, I suffered a panic attack, became completely immobilized for several days. Four days later, the last day of my trip, an ambulance came to my hotel in response to me having heart palpitations and chest pain.

    I was brought to the Emergency room for heart palpitations and chest pain, and have been depressed and traumatized ever since.

    1. What a horrible experience. I recently went through an ordeal where I was accused of something I hadn’t done on a plane. I made the mistake of agreeing to tell my story to the press. I told one story and they told another.. It was published in 4 national tabloids and as a result was trolled because the reporter missed loads out and made stuff up :/

  3. Ok…’s a busy flight…. A passenger is inadvertently over looked and not served…. All of a sudden I am now a racist…..and my job may be at stake…..just because some guy has figured out that the airline will shower him with gifts and airline miles…. It works both ways folks. Just be honest and treat people as you would like to be treated….. Remember the “golden rule”? Do you think I really care that your phone is on or your bag is too big for the overhead? Is part of the job. The rules and regulations are dictated by our federal government.. You don’t like them? Then get involved and change them!!
    Oh wait… I forgot, it’s open season on airlines and airline crew. Never mind. Bash away!

  4. Pingback: Should Passengers be Allowed to Film on Planes? - The Travel Insider

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