A Fight That Passengers Won't Win

Airlines side with their flight attendants in a dispute, and some will ban booted passengers from future flights.
Airlines side with their flight attendants in a dispute, and some will ban booted passengers from future flights. (By Ed Wray -- Associated Press)

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Margot Romary will never argue with a flight attendant again.

When she boarded her US Airways Express flight from Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia on Sept. 6, a flight attendant asked her to store a small bag containing her jewelry and other valuables in the overhead bin or under her seat. Romary refused. She normally kept the bag strapped across her chest, even on other flights, she insisted. But the flight attendant was adamant: Store the bag, Romary was told. Finally, a US Airways gate agent and the plane's captain appeared in the cabin to intervene.

Romary lost the argument: Federal Aviation Administration rules require that all carry-on bags be stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat. Romary agreed to store the bag under her seat.

But it was too late.

The flight attendant informed the plane's captain that she felt "threatened" by Romary and wanted her off the flight. So Romary was escorted off and was offered a seat on the next available flight, which was the following morning.

"This was so unjust. No one said that, 'If you don't comply, I'm going to eject you from the flight,' " Romary, an Oakton-based information technologist, said. "There was no warning. Nothing."

Beware: Follow the requests of your flight attendants or be prepared to suffer the consequences. And don't expect a warning. Airlines side with their flight attendants in any dispute.

The repercussions for getting the boot can be severe. Some airlines, such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, keep their own lists of ejected passengers, who are in some cases barred from future flights. Most of the prohibited passengers were kicked off a flight because of verbal or physical abuse of a crew member or another passenger. How long they're not permitted aboard depends on the severity of the offense, said American spokesman Tim Smith. He added that a passenger can be permanently barred from flying on the carrier.

US Airways spokesman Carlo Bertolini says Romary was not barred from future flights, adding she was welcome to fly on the carrier again. Bertolini declined to comment on the specifics of Romary's case.

The stress level among flight attendants has only increased in the past four years, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and waves of job, benefit and pension cuts. Many flight attendants work for financially struggling carriers and must perform tasks that used to be handled by two or three workers.

"Every flight attendant in this country is more on edge than they were before 9/11," said Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation's largest flight attendant union.

That means some flight attendants are less willing to engage in verbal sparring matches with passengers.

Friend said flight attendants were more inclined to weed out the noncompliant passenger before a flight takes off for fear that the traveler would become a problem during flight.

"If a passenger demonstrates an unwillingness to comply with our request for them to obey the rules before we even take off, then we know that we are potentially going to have difficulty with that person through the entire flight," Friend said.

Flight attendants showed last week how touchy they are these days when they directed their ire at Walt Disney for their depiction in the new movie "Flightplan." Several flight attendant unions urged a boycott of the film because it portrayed flight attendants as rude, unhelpful and uncaring. (BizClass saw the movie on Saturday but was more surprised by the way it played up stereotypes of Middle Eastern passengers.)

The best advice for passengers who have to argue their point is keep it civil and wait until you arrive at your destination.

Romary, who is scheduled to fly on US Airways to New Zealand in coming months, said she will no longer fly with a carry-on bag to avoid another incident. "I'm just going to carry my handbag; that's it," she said.

· Question of the Week: US Airways and America West officially completed their merger last week. The airline is still called US Airways but is now run by America West executives. What advice would you give the executives who have taken over US Airways? What would you -- as a passenger -- like to see done differently at the new US Airways? Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com . Please include your name along with a daytime telephone number.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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