Disclaimer: My words below pave a somewhat long and winding road that leads beyond the normal scope of content at FedUpFlyers.org. Some may not wish to follow, and I respect that. I don’t want to unfairly exploit the attention of the kind people who log on to read my criticism and others’ regarding DHS/TSA’s unlawful groping and scoping of the traveling public and related topics. So I’ve carefully included a note in the text – an escape hatch, as it were, marking the point of my departure into the ethics and metaphysical guts of the matter at hand. That said, I invite you now to sit back, relax, and enjoy the read.
Most readers, I hope, will recall the incident last month in Memphis in which the crew of a commercial flight bound for Charlotte, N.C. refused to fly until two passengers were removed from the aircraft. The passengers were Muslim scholars attempting to travel to an Islamic conference focused this year on the topic of Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims in the U.S.
Those are still pretty much the only hard facts that have been released to the public as of this writing – plenty to incite the typical torrent of speculation, commentary, blathering idiotic bigotry, hurt feelings, and late night comedy routines. Yeah, it’s great fun, but let’s be honest and fair: so far, unless we’re tangibly connected to the event in some official way, none of us has enough information to draw upon in order to frame a meaningful conclusion or comment on the situation.
It would be especially imprudent and unprofessional for me, as a pilot, to indict the crew based on the data currently available. The media and other rumor mills have reported that the flight pushed off the gate and then returned because the crew was unwilling to continue with the two men on board. That no sound justification has been publicly given for this does not necessarily indicate that such justification does not exist. The pilots (or, as the media usually call them, the pilot) would have been sealed up on the flight deck in front of a locked, reinforced, terrorist-proof door when they made the decision to return to the gate. Whatever prompted their decision presumably happened in the cabin on the other side of that door as they were taxiing out to the runway. Pilots must rely on the cabin crew to keep them apprised of what’s going on back there and make the best decisions they can based on that information. The public has been told nothing about any communications along such lines. So, for now at least, we don’t know what we don’t know.
It has also been reported that Delta agents spoke with the flight crew for over half an hour when they returned to the gate and even apologized to the two men when the pilots insisted upon ejecting them from the flight. On the surface, this might cast an understandable cloud of doubt over the crew’s actions. But I speak from personal experience and a solid familiarity with the stories of numerous colleagues when I say – difficult as it may be to fathom – that unsuspecting pilots are often met with considerable resistance when they decide to remove a threatening or problematic passenger from their plane. Many crews have made the mistake of contacting the airline and asking for a gate agent or supervisor to handle a belligerent drunk, an unstable lunatic threatening violence when asked to turn his phone off or buckle his seat belt, or some other superstar who just has to ruin it for everybody. I was shocked myself when I discovered that some airline support agents, managers, etc. seem completely deaf to the sound of a pilot’s voice calling for the removal of a threatening passenger or asking for police assistance, etc. They’ll go back and talk with the individual in question themselves, then return and say something like, “Okay, I got her to turn her phone off. She says she hasn’t slept and she’s going to her father’s funeral and she’s really upset but she’s sorry and it won’t happen again. Just don’t serve her any more alcohol and I think she’ll be alright…”
Then we say, “Yeah but, um, she broke the flight attendant’s nose.”
“I know, I know,” they mutter, shuffling their feet a bit and trying to muster a sympathetic expression. “But I don’t think we’ll be able to find you another one in time to avoid a late departure.” Then, to the bleeding victim, they say, “Hold pressure right there, like this. Keep your head tilted back. It doesn’t look that bad. You can hold up till you get to Guadalajara, right? Put some ice on it at the hotel tonight – you’ll be fine…”
Okay, maybe I’m embellishing the case a little. The point is pilots can have a hard time finding someone to take an unruly passenger off their hands. Very few of us, I hope, will give in once the decision has been made, but it’s kind of a big deal to deny service to a paying customer and a big responsibility (and potential liability) to those involved. Such cases are the exception and not the rule, of course. Still, it happens a lot more than one would expect in a terror-stricken, post-9/11 world. Besides, absent the ideal solution of a legitimate, professional security division, this kind of situation is really outside the airline’s scope of operational expertise. Fellow pilots, here’s my advice if you need real help in the overly regulated and litigious chaos of the system in which we work: Forget the company and call the control tower directly for law enforcement assistance. They’ll send the fuzz right out without questioning your judgment or prerogative as Pilot-in-Command. Remove the threat now. Sort out the details, ideological conundrums, and conflicts of interest later.
So, not to belabor the point, the bottom line is there may be a lot more to this story in Memphis than any of us has been told so far. Anyway, enough of that – there’s something else I’d like to discuss.