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?