What To Do When the Passengers Are Flying Higher Than the Airplane

 - April 2, 2014, 5:25 AM

“I’m telling you, our plane was like a pharmacy with wings.”

While some might assume that is singer Justin Bieber boasting about his ill-fated charter flight on January 31, the quote above is actually from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Loosely based on the spectacular rise and fall of Jordan Belfort and his investment firm Stratton Oakmont, the line was a narrative aside spoken by actor Leonardo di Caprio–as Belfort–as he summarized the bacchanalian goings-on during a charter flight-cum-bachelor party on the way to his wedding. Rampant nakedness, sex, drinking and various kinds of drug use ensued. And drug use is reportedly what might have occurred during Bieber’s flight from Toronto to Teterboro, during which the flight attendant retreated to the cockpit and the pilots were said to have donned oxygen masks to avoid subjecting themselves to copious amounts of marijuana smoke.

The resulting publicity about Bieber’s flight raises all sorts of questions for pilots who are stuck flying disobedient passengers and how to deal with the safety implications of such flights.

Granted, there are those operators that apparently are willing to look the other way to collect the payment for these expensive flights, at least according to one flight attendant, who told the following story on condition of remaining anonymous. We’ll call her “Grace” for her ability to remain calm when, as she put it, she was booked for the “trip from Hell.”

In this particular case, she was RONing away from home with a large-cabin jet, waiting for a new charter to bring her back to the East Coast. The trip began with a last-minute rush to fill some particular catering needs, including CDs of rap, Hawaiian flowers, fresh fruit, cheeseburgers and fried chicken. After the aircraft repositioned to a nearby airport with one passenger, the remaining two passengers boarded, minus a bag containing $30,000 in cash that had been stolen from the wife’s car while she made a stop to pick up some fresh crab legs. “This is how the trip started,” Grace recalled.

In the airplane, she gave the safety briefing then told the passengers she would remain in her crew area because she understood they wanted total privacy, and that if they needed anything they should press the call button or knock on her door. As soon as the jet began taxiing, the passengers cranked up the rap to full volume and lit up what clearly was marijuana. Grace waited until reaching 10,000 feet then went to the cockpit to tell the pilots–this was her first trip with this crew–about the marijuana smoke. The captain’s response: “What, do you think I’m stupid?”.

This flight obviously wasn’t going to be landing short of the destination, nor were the pilots about to warn the passengers to tone down their behavior.

Shortly afterward, one of the passengers, wearing only underwear, knocked on the crew door and apologized to Grace for smoking marijuana, explaining that it was medicinal. While that might explain some of the marijuana use, it didn’t, she surmised, account for the lines of cocaine on the conference table or the white powder on his nose. Ever calm, Grace politely but firmly informed the passenger that he would have to put his clothes on and that if she caught them using needles or freebasing cocaine, “it’s all over for you.” Apparently this passenger liked the treatment because he immediately gave Grace a $100 bill. And later when she refused an offer to snort some coke, another $100. And another $100 when she scoffed at his query about whether she knew where to buy drugs in New York City.

“When we landed, I had a splitting headache,” she said. “I told the captain that I think it’s in your best interest to get professional cleaners in this airplane,” in case a VIP was scheduled for the next trip. The captain’s response: “You’re just a flight attendant. It’s in your best interest to mind your own business.” Unfortunately, Grace concluded, “There are charter companies that will do anything for the money.”

Judgment Call on Ensuring the Safety of Flight

To be fair to the crew on the Bieber flight, the trip from Toronto to Teterboro is relatively short, and given that it was an international flight it might have been easier just to continue to the destination. Pilots who commented about the flight say they wouldn’t put up with Bieber’s refusal to stop smoking marijuana during the flight and would have landed at the nearest suitable airport.

“My understanding is that it was not a long flight, so landing immediately might not have been practical, even if appropriate,” suggested aviation attorney Dennis Haber. “The pilot has the absolute duty to maintain the safety of the aircraft, and he/she is empowered to do whatever might be necessary under the circumstances. Putting on their oxygen masks might have been the most practical solution at that moment.”

Of course, reputable charter operations don’t tolerate such behavior, no matter the provenance of their passengers. According to Desert Jet president and CEO Denise Wilson, her company’s pilots are required to land immediately and deplane the passengers in the event of drug use in the aircraft. “Our responsibility is to the aircraft owner and keeping that aircraft out of any legal wranglings,” she said. “You can’t put everyone on the airplane at risk. That just gives our industry a black eye.”

According to Susan Friedenberg, an experienced flight attendant who offers training through her company, Corporate Flight Attendant Training & Global Consulting, “I think in regards to Justin Bieber, the pilots did everything right. They called ahead and the feds were there to meet the airplane.”

Friedenberg understands that passengers are paying for privacy and anonymity and also that the way passengers are treated has a lot to do with whether they become return customers for the charter operator. Her concerns are associated strictly with safety. If passengers are doing drugs, she will inform the pilots and make sure her voice is strong enough to be taped by the cockpit voice recorder. “Now if something happens it’s on the recorder,” she said. More important, she added, “if I have to do an evacuation and these people are completely stoned, how are they going to follow my directions? They’re going, ‘Like wow, cool, can I help?’ Then it’s a major safety issue. I find most pilots are on the same page.”