Viral airline incidents follow a familiar pattern. A passenger tweets a photo or story about some form of mistreatment, tags the airline, shames a flight attendant or fellow traveler, then vows to never fly using the carrier again. One recent flier illustrated how easily a single perspective can carry the narrative even when other factors may be at play.
On Twitter, a user named Brandon Straka posted Wednesday about an interaction onboard an American Airlines flight from LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. After a flight attendant asked Straka whether there was a reason he wasn’t wearing a mask, he replied: “Sanity.”
A spokesperson for the airline confirmed an incident involving Straka, though not how he initially described it on Twitter, and by Thursday evening, the airline said he’d been banned.
In an email, the airline said it had “thoroughly reviewed an incident on June 17 involving one of our customers, Brandon Straka. As a result of this review, Mr. Straka will not be permitted to fly American, as he failed to comply with our stated policy and crewmember instructions.”
The statement continued: "Restricting travel is a step we take very seriously, and it will only occur after a comprehensive review of the facts of an incident. Mr. Straka will be permitted to fly with us once face coverings are no longer required for customers.”
Details about what led up to Straka being removed from the flight were unclear, but he offered an update after the situation resolved. “I was just removed from my flight for not wearing a mask,” he wrote.
Around the same time, Astead Herndon, a politics reporter for the New York Times, posted about a “mutiny” that was happening on a flight he was on, and it was then that users began to connect the dots and reached out to Herndon to ask whether it was the same person. Turns out it was.
Herndon says he wasn’t aware that Straka was a notable figure when he sat down in the first-class seat next to him but initially thought to push back on the viral tweet because it was a mischaracterization of what actually occurred.
This week, Airlines for America, a trade organization, said a group of major American airlines will begin “vigorously” enforcing face-covering policies after reports of travelers not being held to the safety standard, including banning passengers who do not follow protocols. American was one of those airlines.
According to Herndon, after boarding late he noticed Straka wasn’t wearing a mask but brushed it off. After the preflight announcements about American’s onboard policies, a flight attendant asked Straka to put on a mask, but he refused. After a couple of crew members, including the head flight attendant, again asked Straka to put on a mask, citing airline policy, he said he wasn’t comfortable wearing a mask and began recording the interaction.
At that point, his refusal began to agitate other passengers, who also told him to wear a mask. Herndon said a few passengers were vocally annoyed, but Straka didn’t respond. After the final plea to wear a mask, Straka told the flight attendant that no one asked whether he had a condition that would prevent him from wearing one. When the attendant asked, he said he did but refused to provide any paperwork confirming it.
After some back-and-forth and a bit of fuss, Straka was given an ultimatum: If you don’t want to wear a mask, you can leave the plane. Herndon says he simply got up and left.
In an earlier statement to The Washington Post, American Airlines appeared to back up Herndon’s recounting of the event: “Prior to the departure from the gate of American Airlines flight 1263 from New York’s LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth, Brandon Straka declined to wear a face covering. After he refused to comply with the instructions provided by the flight crew, our team members asked him to deplane. He deplaned and the flight departed the gate four minutes late at 12:34 p.m. ET."
When Herndon pushed back on the tweet, Straka admitted that the interaction was a joke seemingly meant to apply to a hypothetical interaction in which he expressed resistance.
“He wasn’t forcibly removed; he simply left,” Herndon says, noting Straka probably didn’t account for the fact a reporter was documenting the scene. “I was right next to him for the whole interaction. It wasn’t as dramatic as he made it out to be.”
Overall, American said the incident was resolved and Straka was allowed to board a later flight. It’s unclear whether he wore a mask on the later flight.
“Mr. Straka stated to our airport team members that he would comply with our policies, and was rebooked on a later flight. Our team is reviewing this incident, and we have reached out to Mr. Straka to get more information,” a spokesperson said.
Requests for comment were sent to Straka and have yet to be answered.