Dozens of passengers fled a plane and police removed their United Airlines pilot after she gave a long, bizarre speech before takeoff on Saturday.
The pilot boarded the afternoon flight at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport a bit late — wearing a ball cap and casual clothes.
Straight away, she appeared to get into an argument with crew members at the front of the plane.
From his seat near the back, Chris Moore figured at first that she was just another San Francisco-bound flier.
“I thought she was a first-class passenger, complaining,” he told The Washington Post. “Then she grabs the mic.”
Another passenger told Reuters that the pilot asked for a vote on “whether we should have her change into her uniform.”
The passengers gave her a pass. Many found her request endearing, at first.
Randy Reiss, on his way home to San Francisco after a family funeral, was one of them.
“United has always, for me, been a very straight, corporate airline,” he said. “It seemed very friendly, nice, cutesy.”
“Then she said, ‘Sorry, I’m late. I’m going through a divorce.’ And I thought: Uh oh.”
Standing in front of the cockpit, the pilot kept talking over the intercom. Her speech veered into a string of non-sequiturs, and the mood in the cabin turned from cozy to uncomfortable, to worse.
The pilot pointed out two passengers at the front of the plane and noted their race — one black, one white — for reasons that were clear to no one.
That’s when Reiss began to tweet.
The pilot touched on recent politics.
“She’s like ‘I don’t care if you voted for Trump or Clinton. They’re both [expletive],” Reiss wrote.
When she changed the subject to the plane’s imminent takeoff, Reiss began to shake, and another passenger began videotaping the drama.
“So I’ll stop, and we’ll fly the airplane,” the pilot said in the video, which has since been removed from YouTube. “Don’t worry. I’m going to let my co-pilot fly it. He’s a man.”
Reiss was the first to evacuate. He got out of his seat, collected his bag and asked the flight crew to let him off.
“Okay, if you don’t feel safe, get off the airplane, but otherwise we can go,” the pilot said, still sounding cheerful in the video as the first of her passengers began to revolt.
“Disarm the doors,” a flight attendant said.
“She’s not mentally fit to fly,” Reiss remembered telling an attendant as he waited for the door to open, he said.
The attendant gave him a knowing look, he recalled, but replied, “She’s been cleared to fly.”
Still watching the drama from his seat, Moore told The Post, he saw an off-duty pilot call the pilot over and try to calm her down — to no avail.
She returned to the microphone and “did more talking,” Moore said. “I think she went into the cockpit.”
He decided to follow Reese toward the exit. So did many other passengers — at least 50, Moore said.
He heard one flier yell “Stop!” at the pilot. Others were crying as they streamed back to the terminal.
When he cleared the jet, Moore said, even a gate agent was crying.
The agent told him that she had tried to stop the pilot from boarding, he said, quickly realizing that “the lady was unstable.”
“People were pleading … ‘Please call security,'” he said. “I’m wondering, if we didn’t do something, if the plane was going to take off.”
United Airlines did not respond when The Post asked that question. Nor did the airline say who the pilot was, what became of her, or what policies were in place that had cleared her to fly.
A spokesman instead sent a statement that read in full:
“We hold our employees to the highest standards and have replaced this pilot with a new one to operate the flight, which has since departed Austin. We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience.”
Reiss confirmed that a new pilot took the jet to San Francisco — about 90 minutes behind schedule, though other passengers rebooked through Houston.
Before he re-boarded, Reiss said, he watched police walk the pilot back through the airport.
The pilot apologized and hugged him before they parted, he said.
She offered to write a book with him.
It looked to him as if she’d been crying, too.
This post has been updated with new interviews.