At a time of heightened security concerns, disgruntled airline employees and frustrated passengers can be a combustible combination in a crowded aircraft, as travelers find themselves subject to lots of rules and little wiggle room to challenge them.
On a United Airlines flight from Zurich to Washington Dulles International Airport on Jan 2, Bill Pollock asked a flight attendant about a sign telling passengers not to venture beyond the curtain separating economy class from the rest of the plane. Pollock, a book publisher from Burlingame, California, said he wanted to stretch his legs and visit his wife seated on the opposite aisle, using the passageway behind the galleys in the plane’s midsection.
But when he questioned a flight attendant on the policy and began recording their conversation using his cellphone, the situation quickly escalated: The flight attendant grabbed his phone and nearby federal air marshals intervened.
“Two marshals held me up against the counter, they had my hands behind my back,” Pollock said. “I wasn’t violent, I didn’t use four-letter words. All I did was ask this guy about the sign on the curtain and they flipped out.”
The flight was met by United personnel and security agents, who, Pollock said, took his statement and then sent him on his way. But the incident left him with lingering questions about his rights — like whether there is a policy restricting economy-class passengers to their own cabin (not just their own bathrooms), whether travelers are prohibited from videotaping flight crew and what recourse passengers have if airline or security personnel overreact.
It turns out, none of these questions has a clear answer.
Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency did not have a rule limiting passenger movement on a plane, but federal regulations state, “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft.”
Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, said flight attendants routinely made an announcement asking customers not to pass through the curtains separating cabins, adding that federal regulations require passengers to “comply with lighted signs, placards and crew member instructions.”
Pollock conceded that he told the flight attendant he planned to ignore the sign, which other travelers had questioned in online travel forums.
On a United flight from Dulles airport to Zurich last January, David Snead said he saw a flight attendant pin a similar sign to the curtain in front of the economy cabin. To him, it appeared “handmade.”
“She got in arguments with people who tried to pass through,” Snead said. “She was not a nice flight attendant.”
He added that he sympathized with airline employees who must enforce a growing number of rules.
“Flight attendants have a ridiculously hard job dealing with passengers unwilling to accept every rule the airline comes up with,” he said.
Rules that cause friction between flight attendants and travelers often involve electronic devices and carry-on bags. But as carriers invest more money in amenities for higher-paying customers, stricter divisions between passenger classes contribute to the tension.
Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said she was not aware of a policy limiting where passengers could walk, especially if a cart was blocking an aisle or a family member was seated on the other side of the plane.