AIN Blog: Do They Really Need To Kick Passengers Off Airliners?

 - April 18, 2016, 6:32 PM
Is our fear of terrorism justified, and does that explain why passengers are getting kicked off their flights?

What is up with all these news stories about passengers getting kicked off airlines for various infractions, including speaking Arabic on a cellphone, texting words that look suspiciously terroristic, switching seats while wearing a head scarf, arguing with flight crew about snacks?

I’ll be the first to admit that just because these incidents are in the news doesn’t mean that I or any reader knows the whole story. There could be other mitigating factors involved, about which we know nothing. But on the surface, these incidents highlight a few real problems.

Never mind that the risk of dying in a terrorist act is tiny. In the scope of all the risks we face each day, we’re far more likely to die in a dog attack, from alcohol-related events, by a gun, in an automobile accident or from cancer, at least according to the image above that I saw on Facebook. (Which asks: “So why do we spend 50,000 times more $$ on fighting terror than any other cause? Irrational fear.)

There seems to be an extraordinary sensitivity among passengers and flight crews these days, and all it apparently takes to set it off is a fearful passenger who alerts the crew about their Arabic-speaking fellow passenger or a passenger who questions a flight attendant a bit too vigorously. 

What I’m curious about is whether airlines train pilots and flight attendants on how to handle these situations. Am I the only person who wonders why, when a passenger points to another and whispers the word “Arabic,” the captain doesn’t kick off the suspicious complainer instead of the Arabic speaker? Is the captain, who rightfully is in charge, obligated to take every passenger’s unfounded and questionable suspicions as a reason to deplane a passenger who has already gone through security screening?

As I said, I probably don’t know the full extent of any of these stories, and I certainly don’t intend to second-guess a captain’s decision, but I sure would like to hear from some airline pilots about how they view this problem and what kind of training and guidance they get from their employers.

Meanwhile, does anyone with a brain honestly think that terrorists are so stupid that they would signal their intentions by actually speaking or texting Arabic and using words that clearly make them look suspicious? That’s like security experts using fake cartoon-like dynamite sticks and old-timey alarm clocks to test security screeners. Oh wait, they do that!

And with regard to the other situations where irritated passengers get out of hand, I have no problem with quelling these annoying people when they disrupt a flight, but even then, cutting the flight short at a vast economic and environmental (dumping fuel) expense and kicking them off might not always be necessary. I once witnessed an amazing flight attendant tamp down a potentially angry passenger by simply talking to him, empathizing with him, laughing at herself and encouraging him to lighten up and making him think she was his best friend. It was a fine demonstration of this flight attendant’s skills, and I’m pretty sure she received more training on that than she did about how to kick people off her airplane.

I don’t know what to do about this, but luckily I’ve managed to avoid riding along as the captain taxis back to the gate or cuts a flight short to eject an annoying passenger. Perhaps flight crews need to take heed of a recent court case involving a “hangry” (hungry-angry) passenger, who couldn’t stop himself from bothering a flight attendant for a snack because for whatever reason he didn’t stock up before boarding his airplane. According to an April 16 item on the View From The Wing blog by Gary Leff, “Ultimately the jury determined that not every passenger faced with overreacting crew is a criminal.”

Comments's picture

Matt - There are likely several reasons for the increase in passengers removal, and certainly the number of Terrorist events are a significant factor.

'Just' speaking Arabic isn't likely to get anyone tossed. Nor is 'just' moving to another seat. Stories of that nature that I'm familiar with, have been more ominous than 'being Arabic'.

From the Crew perspective, airline and FAA rules come into play (you cannot knowingly transport an intoxicated passenger) and the knowledge that once in the air, options to mitigate an unruly passenger (or worse) become very limited. Often the decision is made after the Agent, Flight Attendant, Captain and perhaps others weigh in.

Flight Attendants do a marvelous job of diffusing countless situations before then become a problem. But, there are some passengers who are under the influence of something, are unstable, or are perhaps just very disturbing to others. What is a crew to do in a short period of time before departure? They look to their Airline procedures and often that means removing the passenger to sort it out - something that takes more time and requires additional resources than are immediately available.

People want to get to their destination safely and on time. Individuals who threaten (or are perceived to threaten) that objective will likely be called into question, which may well require their removal. It is a balancing act for Airlines, but serious airborne problems occur too frequently to substantially loosen the rules for those being booted for bad behavior or perceived threats.


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