Last month, a group of high school students and their chaperons were ordered off a flight to Atlanta for refusing to sit down and turn off their cellphones. In May, six friends were removed from a flight to Las Vegas allegedly for talking loudly. In April, a 340-pound man said he was told to leave a Denver-bound plane because of his size.
Every few weeks we seem to hear about passengers being escorted off planes for the sorts of infractions that once only sent you to the principal’s office. Is this normal? Might you someday find yourself being taken off a plane for being uncooperative, kicking a seat back or caviling with a flight attendant (all real reasons that you can be removed)?
The number of passengers classified as “unruly” cannot be accurately quantified. The Federal Aviation Administration tracks only the incidents that crew members choose to report. And its database does not include security violations (the Transportation Security Administration handles those). That said, the number of unruly passengers reported to the FAA since 1995 (the earliest date in the online database) appears to be at an all-time low. There were 129 such passengers in 2012, down from 140 in 2011. The high was in 2004, when crew members reported 330 unruly passengers.
And then there’s the data from the International Air Transport Association. The trade group said its most recent available figures show that reported instances of unruliness increased about 29 percent between 2009 and 2010 (the FAA’s figures show a decline in that period). Whatever the numbers, the association and flight attendants say it is a continuing problem.
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“Which is why we were so outraged with the thought of knives coming back onboard,” said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, referring to the TSA decision, since rescinded, to allow small knives in cabins.
Follow the rules
“The plane in my view is just a microcosm of where we’re at in society today,” Shook said. Gone are the days of half-empty aircraft and unhurried travel. “Now the planes are packed. Everybody’s got to wait in lines.” That makes it imperative that passengers follow instructions.
The Association of Flight Attendants refers to its union members as “aviation’s first responders,” and indeed their actions can save lives. Consider the flight attendants who helped evacuate the Asiana Airlines plane that crash-landed in San Francisco this month, or the Alaska Airlines attendants who in May restrained a passenger after he allegedly tried to open an emergency exit row window during the plane’s descent into Portland, Ore.
Yet consumer advocates and passengers who have been ordered off planes for seemingly petty infractions think that some flight attendants abuse their power and that the broad language airlines use to define unruly behavior makes it difficult for passengers to know how to behave and, if necessary, defend themselves.
Shook said removing passengers from planes is a last recourse. However, there are consequences for those who do not follow a rule like turning off portable electronic devices.)
A passenger might not think refusing to shut off a phone is a big deal, but not adhering to a simple request on the ground suggests that you might not be cooperative in a more serious situation.
“If they refuse to turn off their phone,” Shook said, “we don’t want to predict what would happen in flight. It could be far worse if you’re up in the air.”
On the ground, passengers can be turned over to airport authorities. In the air, the plane might have to be diverted or the passenger restrained.
“We’re there to protect the safety of passengers,” she said.
Rude or dangerous?
When deciding whether a passenger should be removed from a plane, cabin crews are encouraged to trust their judgment. That leaves them with the job of trying to parse impolite behavior or traits (like talking loudly) from potentially dangerous behavior.
No one wants surly passengers on a flight. And there is no telling how many terrible situations have been avoided because perceptive flight attendants have had passengers removed from planes. But consumer advocates say that the broad and vague language that airlines use to define unruly behavior (found in their Contract of Carriage) is unfair to passengers because it is unclear what can get them tossed off a plane and renders them unable to defend themselves.
“We have heard of passengers being told to get off a plane because of a ‘look’ or being too ‘anxious’ or having too ‘tense a tone’ when they answer a flight attendant,” said Kate Hanni, the founder of FlyersRights.org, the largest nonprofit airline consumer group in the country.
Hanni said it has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the FAA to create a set of rules or legal standards so that passengers know precisely which behaviors to avoid. Currently, a flight attendant can remove a passenger for not obeying instructions or if a passenger presents a risk.
“But ‘risk’ is completely subjective,” she said, “and when you have flight attendants and crews from different backgrounds and cultures you get a different set of rules that no one knows on every flight.”
A guide to preventing and managing unruly passengers by the International Air Transport Association says that “incidents are occurring regularly, on all airlines and in every cabin class.” Published late last year, it is the group’s first effort to bring together information in various documents and manuals. It defines unruly passengers as those who fail to follow crew instructions and onboard rules of conduct.
One way to educate yourself is to Google the name of your airline and “Contract of Carriage.” The contract will include a section listing the reasons the airline may refuse to transport you, or remove you from your flight. The “conditions of carriage” for American Airlines, for instance, explain that the airline can remove you for refusing to obey instructions from any flight crew member but also for things like having “an offensive odor not caused by a disability or illness” or being “clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.”
Hanni advises travelers always to follow flight attendants’ instructions . If you believe you have been removed from a flight unfairly, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s consumer protection division at Airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/escomplaint/es.cfm. You can also call Flyers Rights at 877-359-3776. They will walk you through the complaint process and send a letter to the department asking for an investigation.