Forgive me if anyone has posted this article already, but I haven't been around the site much in the last week. Anyway, I saw this story, and it seems to be a disturbing incident of what happens when everyone gets so spooked about air rage that no one is allowed to question stupid or rude service without getting the cuffs slapped on them. This article makes some good points towards the end about how airlines are blaming customers for their own poor treatment, and I was wondering what y'all thought. Especially since the trend by f/a unions, etc, is that they want more power to deny boarding and so on. My fear has always been that this power would be abused...read on:
Air rage, or outrage?
At 79, San Diegan an unlikely, but charged, airline disrupter
By Jenifer Hanrahan
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
August 22, 2001
American Airlines Flight 1265 started smoothly. It left on time from Dallas, headed for San Diego.
Harold Schneider settled into 5F, a first-class window seat. He was relieved to sit down.
At 79, his trip to visit his parents' grave left him worn out. He was brought to the gate in a wheelchair.
Just before takeoff, he asked a flight attendant for a Diet Sprite, no ice.
She told him he'd have to wait. That's when the trouble began.
What happened next is in some ways in dispute, but the basic facts aren't.
The airline would have you believe that Schneider -- a great-grandfather and World War II veteran -- posed such serious threat to the safety of the flight that the pilot had to make an emergency landing and call in the FBI.
Others have their doubts. At a time when airline service has hit all-time lows, they think Schneider is a casualty of war -- a war of words between angry airline customers and increasingly intolerant crews.
Schneider is facing up to 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines for "intimidating" and "interfering" with a crew member.
Even FBI Special Agent Gary Macnoll said the case against Schneider is hard to believe. Macnoll was armed and ready when the white-haired terror of the skies shuffled off the plane in Abilene, Texas.
The case, he said, ranks as the second strangest he's seen -- topped only by the one-armed, one-legged bank robber who crawled into the bank.
"If I were to write my memoirs, this would be in there," Macnoll said. "He's pretty frail."
If you can believe the headlines, the friendly skies have become a battleground.
Airline crews complain of chronic rudeness and obnoxiousness. There are the infamous stories of the man who defecated on the drink cart, and of the brawling twin sisters headed for a modeling competition in China who got dropped off in Anchorage.
"We call it the vulgarization of air travel," said John Hoff, a Chicago attorney who specializes in aviation issues. "The flip-flops and tank-top set has found its way to the airports from the bus depot."
But the truth is, the numbers don't support the view that air rage is on the rise. Reports of air rage incidents have remained largely stable in recent years.
Four million people fly daily, the most ever.
Yet in the past five years, the Federal Aviation Administration has received, on average, only 270 reports of unruly passengers a year.
During the last fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 34 people with disrupting a flight by "interfering" with the crew, an increase from 24 in 1999, and 19 in 1998.
"You probably have less chance of being assaulted in an airplane or an airport than in any other public space, including places of employment and certainly the roadways," said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington, D.C.
Of American Airlines' 250,000 flights last year, about 3,000 flights were diverted. Of those, 11 were diverted because of "passenger misconduct," compared with 165 for medical emergencies. Most of the rest were due to weather.
Harold Schneider might be the most unlikely character in this year's tally.
He was feeling relaxed but sad when he boarded American Airlines Flight 1265 at about 11 p.m. on May 5.
His wife, Beverly, had died in January.
After 63 years of marriage, he can hardly believe she's gone. "She was the sweetest girl," Schneider said, his eyes welling with tears.
He took the trip to New York to get out of his lonely house in Allied Gardens. His daughter got him the first-class ticket with her frequent-flier miles.
While the plane was still on the ground, Schneider asked for a Diet Sprite, no ice. It's customary for first-class passengers to be served drinks as soon as they board.
The flight attendant told him he'd have to wait. "I said OK," Schneider recalled.
Shortly after takeoff, he asked again.
This time a different flight attendant, Kathy Russell, told him he'd have to wait because they were approaching thunderstorms.
Then the flight attendant came back with a beer for the passenger seated next to him -- and salted nuts for Schneider.
"By this time, I'm steaming," Schneider recalled. "I said, 'Where's my Diet Sprite with no ice?' "
By the time she brought him the Diet Sprite, he didn't even want it. "I said, 'Take my nuts and my drink and get out of my sight.' "
In the FBI affidavit, the flight attendant said Schneider was "belligerent and verbally abusive." That he repeatedly shouted: "Bring me my drink now!"
And when she did, Schneider "pushed the drink back at Russell and yelled 'You take it' and 'you're nuts -- get away from me!' "
In her 26 years on the job, she told the FBI, she "had never before been this intimidated or frightened when confronted by a passenger."
The pilot, who never left the cockpit or gave Schneider a warning, announced on the public address system that the plane needed to stop for "gas."
"I thought that sounded ridiculous," Schneider said. "But I thought, 'Maybe gas is cheaper here in Texas.' "
Then he felt the plane begin to descend.
An hour into the flight, the pilot made an emergency landing in Abilene, Texas, where Schneider was escorted off the plane and arrested.
Schneider did not make threats.
He did not use profanity.
He never budged from his seat.
A few years ago, a pilot would not have made an emergency landing to drop off a passenger like Harold Schneider, flight attendants and air line officials admit.
Times have changed.
American Airlines supports the decision to boot Schneider off the plane.
A passenger need not be a physical threat to justify getting kicked off the plane -- just being disruptive or annoying to other passengers is enough, said John Hotard, a spokesman at American Airlines' Fort Worth headquarters.
"Our senior management once believed the customer was always right," Hotard said. "Well, today we don't have that view. There are some folks we do not want flying our airlines. Now we back up our flight attendants."
Earlier this summer, a union that represents airline workers held demonstrations at several airports to protest abuse of airline employees. Flight attendants are lobbying Congress and federal prosecutors to impose prison terms and hefty fines on passengers who give them a hard time.
Last year, Congress increased the penalty for interfering with a crew member from $1,100 to $25,000.
Most significantly, major U.S. carriers now have "zero tolerance" for "disruptive passengers."
Gate agents are told to bar anyone they deem rude or potentially threatening. Crews are encouraged to report cases of "unruly" passengers to police.
Earlier this month, United Airlines began including leaflets in ticket jackets explaining the consequences of misbehaving. The bright yellow brochure says: "Unruly behavior will not be tolerated."
Certainly, in some cases, there's good reason for that policy.
Two years ago, Stacy Fletcher, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline, was whacked in the face by a man when she tried to break up a fight between him and his girlfriend.
Shaken, she took self-defense courses. She put her fighting skills to use last year when a man shouted, "You out! Me Out! We Out!" and tried to open the airplane door while in flight.
Fletcher, 34, pinned him to the ground. The man spent the remainder of the flight in handcuffs, de rigueur flight equipment nowadays.
Violent incidents such as this -- and more generalized passenger discontent -- are taking a toll.
There are record delays and canceled flights. Space so cramped a rapidly reclined seat can take out your kneecaps. Ranch-flavored pretzels instead of a hot meal.
"Our patience level it not what it used to be either," said Fletcher, a flight attendant for 13 years. "Everybody is a little bit on edge. The crews get really tired of apologizing for the screw-ups of the company. If I'd had to say, 'I'm sorry this flight is delayed' one more time last summer I'd put a gun to my head."
When American Airlines Flight 1265 touched down, Schneider peered out the window and saw two Abilene police cruisers. His seat was still buckled when FBI agents appeared in the aisle.
With a local TV crew taping the action, he was handcuffed and taken to a local jail.
Schneider's daughter and son-in-law flew from San Diego to Texas, planning to bail him out. However, he was released the next day on his own recognizance and took a flight home.
Consumer advocates say Schneider's case is a supreme example of "zero tolerance" run amok.
"Zero tolerance," in borrowing from the lingo of the U.S. drug war, is tantamount to waging battle on the people that keep them in business.
"They are making minor incidents of rudeness into federal crimes," Hudson said. "There is a tendency by some airlines to look for scapegoats because the public is very obviously mad at the airlines."
No trial date has been set for Schneider. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case said it will probably be settled instead of going to trial.
Schneider said he has already suffered more than he deserves.
He was humiliated. He has paid $25,000 in legal fees. Worrying about the case has made his angina flare up.
"It's way out of line," he said. "Why it went this far, nobody can understand."
Airlines draw fine line between complaining and 'threatening'
August 22, 2001
If you have a problem with the service onboard an airplane, you'd better be careful not to complain too loudly -- or what happened to Harold Schneider could happen to you.
If Schneider had been in a restaurant, his crankiness would not have gotten him arrested.
But federal law and civil aviation code prohibit "threatening," "intimidating" or "interfering" with a flight crew member.
In the air, the line at which pushiness become intimidation, or complaining becomes interference, is not at all clear.
The captain of the airplane is permitted by law to do whatever is necessary to maintain safety and order. And flight attendants are far more than flying waitresses.
If a flight attendant tells you to buckle your seat belt, stow your luggage or sit down and keep quiet, do it or risk fines or arrest.
"Flight attendants are primarily cabin safety professionals," said Dawn Deeks, spokewoman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington, D.C. "That is their No. 1 job. Their service duties are completely secondary to that."
On an airplane, you can get away with some complaining. But you're better off expressing your unhappiness, in writing, when you're safely on the ground.
"Have some discretion," said John Hoff, a Chicago attorney who specializes in aviation issues. "If your meal is cold, you can politely say, 'Can I have a hot one'?' But don't let it escalate . . . At some point you may cross the threshold, and you'll be making your argument after your arrest."
-- Jenifer Hanrahan