Have you ever given some thought to how easily you can be removed from an airline flight, told to gather your belongings and leave the plane immediately because you've been deemed a "risk to the flight." It's easier than you might think for it to occur. Flight attendants have the power to have you removed at will, specifically their will.
We've all heard the stories of airline customers being thrown off flights for being too heavy, too tall, too scandalously dressed, or too loud. Some incidents you may not be aware of were the 'booted off the plane' for complaining about baggage fees, for crying, for being blind, for using a curse word, or for having down syndrome (technically he was just kicked out of first class).
Being a "risk to the flight" can take quite a number of different forms, and for JetBlue Airlines, their "risk" category includes such things as requesting that a mother of a four year old fidgety child switch seats with her. Make this type of request and you too could be labeled a "risk to the flight."
On December 6th I boarded the second leg of my two part flight to Bogota, Colombia from JFK's JetBlue terminal 5, thinking it would be a flight like any other (one of the hundreds I've taken in my career as a travel writer). Seated next to me (14F) was a fidgety four year old (14E), kicking and punching, jumping and swaying. This was nothing I hadn't seen before. His mother had been seated in the front of the plane several rows ahead of her son, which was quickly rectified by a JetBlue crewmember who asked politely if the woman seated in our aisle seat (14D) would switch with the child's mother.
After she sat, and before she could orient herself, her seat belt, and her belongings, I asked her if she wouldn't mind switching places with her son, since it would help me sleep undisturbed by the 4 year old's movements during the 8 hour flight. She immediately and bluntly refused!
I attempted to ask her a second time, trying to explain the logic of my request and the nature of the child's fidgety kicks.
"He's autistic!" she replied, and again refused to switch places with him this time with the excuse. "I gave him a pill, he'll be OK."
I was slightly shocked by the anger she was directing at me, and it was either the shocked look on my face or the sense of anger from the mother that alerted the flight attendant to our situation.
"Is there a problem here?" the flight attendant inquired. I tried to explain my request to the flight attendant, who then scurried off to the front of the plane.
I went back to sending last minute work e-mails, and began to adjust to the idea that this child's tantrums would be a reality of this flight, my world was most certainly not going to come to an end. I'd been through this situation before. A gate agent appeared.
"What's the problem here?"
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I attempted a fourth time to explain the logic behind a seat swap.
"This woman paid for this seat!" said the agent.
"I paid for my seat." I said.
"I can look into another seat for you sir, if you want."
I looked around at the full plane. "No, that's not necessary," I replied. The next thing I knew I was being ushered off the flight with my hand luggage in tow to the words "risk to the flight" being repeated to me as the answer to every question I attempted to pose.
"The captain has deemed you a risk to the flight!"
I never met, saw or spoke to the captain at any point during the incident I'm describing.
The plane immediately pulled back from the jetway on it's way south and JetBlue's gate agent offered me a rebooking on a flight 24 hours later, one where presumably I would no longer be a "risk to the flight."
Fast forward two hours, I'm seated on a last minute purchase Delta flight to Bogota watching the passenger two rows ahead of me refuse to turn off his cell phone despite repeated requests, refuse to acknowledge his duties in the exit row seat despite repeated requests, and all with the scent of alcohol obviously on his breath. He flew to Bogota without incident.
Watching this second passenger/flight attendant interaction prompted me to review my own behavior to look for anything threatening, rude, inappropraite, or insensitive. I hadn't raised my voice, used foul language, or insulted anyone. I hadn't pointed my finger, raised my fist, or invaded anyone's personal space. No orders from the flight attendant had been disobeyed nor had I contradicted a statement made by the flight crew. I struggled to understand what JetBlue defined as a "risk to the flight," so I decided to ask them that question (getting an answer turned out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated).
There is no review process for this type of incident. The captain of a JetBlue flight (or any airline flight for that matter) can remove anyone from any flight for any reason, end of sentence. The flight attendants have unlimited discretion to advise the captain to remove any individual, and the captain's decision is final. Question such a decision on the plane and authorities will remove you by force. Question such a decision after the fact and you might get a response similar to the one I received:
Kevin, although we understand your frustration, please know that seat selections are offered as a courtesy to our customers. However, as stated in our Contract of Carriage, they are not guaranteed. Occasionally we need to move individuals as a courtesy to other customers...
The Inflight Crew of any airline has the authority to remove anyone they deem a
risk to the flight or who does not follow instructions of the Crew. It is a federal offence to
interfere with the operation of a commercial flight.
This prompted me to ask two critical follow up questions (as well as wonder why they had decided to include the part about moving passengers for the courtesy of other customers since that's precisely what I had requested):
1) Exactly how was I considered to be a risk to the flight (please be specific)?
2) Does JetBlue believe my request of the seat-swap constituted a federal crime?
It took almost a month of no response from JetBlue before I pressed these questions in multiple phone calls. The final response was a simple e-mail with two sentences, neither one of which answered either of the questions:
Out of respect for the privacy of our customers, we don't comment publicly on the details of a specific customer matter. We stand behind our crewmembers' decisions to put the safety of all of our customers on board as their number one priority.
If this sounds like a typical corporate response designed to end a dialogue, it most certainly is. Since 9-11, for better or for worse, the word "safety" has been used to defend anything and everything involving airlines, airplanes, airports, and air travel. It's a word no one dares argue against in public (in private the rumbles of 'how safe does this really make us?' get louder every year).
I'm not writing this piece to give JetBlue a black eye, they've given themselves plenty of those in recent years. I'm writing to make the flying public aware of how easily their actions may be stamped with the phrase "risk to the flight." If you're thinking right now that this could never possibly happen to you, just remember that I would have said exactly the same thing five seconds before being escorted off my flight.
What can you do to protect yourself?
A friend of mine, who happens to be a flight attendant, asked me that exact question when we discussed if I should write this article. I'll admit it was hard to come up with an answer, considering the only appeals that ever get heard in situations such as this one are voiced in the court of public opinion. I came up with this: Have a recording device with you at all times (but for god's sake, don't turn it on unless the cabin door is still open or the flight has reached a safe cruising altitude). This way you at least have the ability to defend yourself with an audio-visual record at your disposal.
And to the airlines I would suggest this: Don't hide behind phrases ("risk to the flight," "safety," etc.) and treat your customers as human beings with human concerns. The inside of a full airplane is a tricky and often difficult to navigate mini-society, and I don't envy the job some flight attendants have to perform. But it should be the corporate entity's responsibility to back up their employees both when they make the correct decisions, and when they make the wrong ones; by apologizing on their behalf if necessary. If a company can't acknowledge that there might be a problem, then other customers will go through exactly what I went through from as of yet uninvented reasons to apply the ever evolving 'scarlet letter' of "risk to the flight."
People who board flights intending to cause harm are the indisputable "risks to the flight," not the woman with too much hand luggage, the lady not wearing underwear, the gentleman who says "f@*#," or the individual who asks if a mother will switch seats with her son. We're customers and passengers, and at a very minimum would like assurances that we'll get to where we paid to go.