How To Deal With Hostile Flight Attendants Without Getting Arrested

It's an interesting juxtaposition of events:

One: Airlines are streamlining their budgets, trying to cut costs on everything from food to baggage and of course, personnel. The result: overworked, underpaid airline staff who have to juggle the dual role of being glorified bus boys with terrorist-fighting 007's AND impatient, frustrated passengers, sick of airlines trying to get them to pay more for less and less and less.

Two: Since 9/11, airports and airlines have upped their security measures and federal protection has granted "first-responders" increased protection and authority. According to statute 49 USC 46504: "An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. However, if a dangerous weapon is used in assaulting or intimidating the member or attendant, the individual shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. " After 9/11, in the USA Patriot Act, Congress altered the statute slightly to make it a crime to "conspire to interfere in a crime".

But how does this all play out in regular life?

On a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I was flying business class with my mother-in-law and boarded to find us placed in a 3-seater with an empty seat between us. I was 6 months pregnant, had recently had surgery and was on a wheelchair. My 2 year old son, who was also traveling with us was to be seated in economy with our nanny. But of course, as we embarked on leg 2 of a 20 hour journey, he fussed and refused to be sent off without his mother. So tired and unwell I took the decision of planting him in the vacant seat between us, thinking I would calm him down and send him to the back after take-off.

My mistake: Not letting the stewardess know as soon as I had done that.

My punishment: Being yelled at like a delinquent school girl loud enough so the whole cabin had to turn around and look.

I tried to explain to the irate British purser why I had made this admittedly poor decision and apologized for the inconvenience. I promised to send him back as soon as the fasten seat belt sign was switched off. She was not appeased and proceeded to scowl at me for the rest of the flight. Had I raised my voice in my defense would it have been chalked up to hormones and fatigue or would Medusa have invoked the Patriot Act and had me arrested for trying to aid would-be terrorists by keeping my son in a seat near mine so he wouldn't shriek all through take-off?

As we departed, I considered giving her my feedback - that as a customer who had made a mistake and was willing to accept and rectify it, I did not appreciate her manner or tone. But I held my tongue. Why? Because of stories like that of Carl Persing, who was arrested for being rude to a flight attendant who claimed that Persing and his girlfriend were behaving inappropriately and upsetting other passengers on a flight. Or Emily Gillette whom Delta confirms was kicked off a flight for declining an attendant's offer for a blanket while breastfeeding her child. (A whole other rant that is out of scope for this article). What confuses me is where in the Patriot Act it converts flight attendants into the ethics squad? How is laying your head in your girlfriend's lap (or being part of the Mile High Club for that matter) or refusing to risk smothering your child in an already impossibly crowded space an act of terrorism, or in any way impeding attendants from doing their jobs of finding the real bad guys? I personally think that flight attendants are pissed off at their own lot, and are taking it out on us. Well here's a news flash for you: of all the unhappy passengers you could come across, parents traveling with children are probably top of that list; we have to deal with exorbitant fares, reluctant service providers, lack of accommodation or facilities, other passengers regarding you as if you have a rare contagious skin disease, and now this, power-high, untrained, or whimsical flight attendants.

So what can we do about it? Mark Rasch, lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Maryland and current Director of CyberSecurity and Privacy Consulting at the CSC., offers some practical advice:

  • The BEST advice is to stay calm. If there is a disagreement with a particular flight attendant, ask to speak to the purser. While the flight attendant has the right to do things for safety, this does not mean that they can make any request at all of any passenger.  
  • If a flight attendant is abusive, the best thing to do is to document the incident (cell phone cameras are good) or have it documented, although in preflight, the attendant may insist that such devices be switched off (a usual source of argument with passengers!) Dealing with unruly flight attendants is similar to dealing with any unruly person in a position of authority. You may have rights, but ultimately you will likely lose! 
  • Get the names of possible witnesses, and have them document what is going on.

Joseph Gutheinz, (Law offices at is a former Military Intelligence Officer, FAA Civil Aviation Security Special Agent, U.S. Department of Inspector General Special Agent and consultant for the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. He is presently a lawyer and college instructor who practices and teaches about aviation and space law.

For more egregious cases, Gutheinz suggests extreme responses:

  • Call the media, and the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights or a politician while you are still on the plane. Have the media wait for the flight to arrive, and don’t let the flight crew know what you are doing. There is nothing like shining the light of day on a bad practice. 
  • If you can capture pictures with your phone do so. 
  • Contact the authorities and a lawyer once you’re on the ground and a lawyer. Depending on what happened to you there may be criminal charges that can be filed or civil remedies. 

In summary, be wise and cautious about how you handle these situations. As Rasch rightly points out, they have the authority and you trying to exercise your rights may end up in YOUR arrest and that's just not worth it. But you can still speak up, in a firm, and respectful manner and ensure that you have witnesses around just in case.

Resource: Sorry to be such a downer - just thought it was important to reveal what you're up against and what you can do about it.

Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan


Twitter @momaboard

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