If you’re a frequent flier, you might think you’ve seen it all. Margie D., a paralegal from San Francisco who asked that I not use her full name, had flown 55 times on Virgin America in an 18-month period. She thought she had seen and heard it all, too.
But on Oct. 9, 2016, she and her fellow passengers settled in for a 4-hour Chicago to San Francisco flight — a flight which would be far from ordinary. As the cabin dimmed for the evening flight, most passengers popped in earbuds, tuning in to listen to the second debate in a tense presidential campaign. Margie watched, too, and placed an order for a sparkling wine and a Coca-Cola over the plane’s in-flight entertainment system, called Red.
In the time since ordering those drinks, Margie’s exchange with the flight attendant has replayed in her head countless times. Because despite having done nothing wrong, Margie was threatened with arrest. Her experience has left her worried, confused and upset, and she contacted me to find out what she can do about it.
Here’s what happened: When the flight attendant delivered her drinks, she noticed he had delivered the wrong soda — a Coke Zero instead of a regular Coke. When she pointed out the error, Margie remembers the male flight attendant said, “That’s what you ordered.”
Margie showed him her beverage order on the seatback screen, but she says his attitude made it clear he was not going to address the issue. Instead, he moved on, serving drinks to other passengers.
Absorbed by the debate, she let it go, until the flight attendant passed through the cabin again. As he passed her in the aisle, she put out her hand to get his attention, but her hand made inadvertent contact with his arm.
“You are not allowed to touch me,” he snapped.
Margie could immediately tell this was not a good situation. A criminal defense paralegal, she knew to remain calm, and placed her hands in front of her. “I’d like to speak to another flight attendant,” she responded in an even tone, and pressed the call button above her head.
What happened next is still unbelievable to her. According to Margie, the flight attendant parked the beverage cart at the front of the plane and entered the cockpit. About 30 seconds later, the Captain made the following announcement over the plane’s PA system: “To the woman in 5C, if you touch anyone else, you will be arrested upon landing.”
Margie couldn’t believe what was happening. She had been singled out by a flight attendant for pointing out an error in beverage service, and now the Captain had threatened her with arrest. Everyone on board watching the debate heard the announcement, too.
Margie, who was seated beside a sleeping toddler, began to grasp the gravity of the situation. She began taking notes.
“Within five minutes or so, they began collecting garbage again,” Margie recalls. “At that point, I had already been accused of assault and threatened with arrest. There was no way I was going to consume alcohol.”
Fearful of worsening problems with the crew, when a different flight attendant came by with a trash bag, Margie asked her if she could place her full glass of wine in the trash bag.
That flight attendant barked, “Don’t start with me — you’re done.”
Margie sat in silence, wondering how this situation had gotten so out of control. Before she could reach for her phone to begin recording the exchanges, a third flight attendant approached and thrust a crumpled piece of paper in front of Margie.
“She told me it was a cease and desist notice,” Margie recalls.
The notice is an official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) document that crew members keep on hand in the event they have to warn a passenger that his or her behavior may have legal consequences. It’s a way to deter the alleged offender from continuing to engage in unlawful or unacceptable behavior. Think of it like a yellow card in soccer.
The notice also informs the passenger that he or she will be reported to the FAA. And based on the flight crew report, the FAA can fine the alleged offender — to the tune of thousands of dollars.
Margie sat quietly in deep anxiety for the remainder of the long flight to California, afraid she would be arrested and charged criminally. When the plane landed in San Francisco, there was no gate available for the plane. During the 20 minute wait on the tarmac for a gate, Margie began texting her attorney colleagues for help. She had only read about situations like these before, and didn’t know what would happen next.
But when the cabin door opened, remarkably, nothing happened. Two female flight attendants stood at the front of the plane in silence while everyone, including Margie, exited as if all was normal.
Margie was obviously relieved. But it was the beginning of a long inquiry into why she was mistreated. She was perplexed and angry. After all, she had been humiliated, intimidated and threatened. And, based on the notice a flight attendant gave her, she had reason to fear she would be reported to the federal government.
Margie then began a series of phone calls to Virgin America’s customer service team — mostly to determine whether this incident had any lasting consequences for her.
At first, Virgin America knew nothing of the incident. After some research, a representative told her that there was no incident report filed, and apologized for her experience. She also offered Margie a credit for future travel.
A frequent flier with hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles, she wasn’t looking for a future travel credit. In fact, Margie never wanted to fly on Virgin America again.
She had another business trip planned just days later, and she feared setting foot on another Virgin America plane. She was also concerned her TSA Pre-Check benefits could be revoked if the airline had in fact reported her to the FAA.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Margie pressed repeatedly for more information. The airline told her it conducted an investigation into the incident which showed that Margie had been “argumentative” on the flight.
The airline representative said she had not been banned from flying on the airline, and would be welcome on future flights. That company representative told Margie that its investigation was not complete, however. The representative then asked Margie, “What’s your endgame?”
“I want assurance that I won’t be arrested when I fly,” she explained, “and that my TSA Pre-Check status has not been affected.”
I contacted Virgin America on Margie’s behalf. The airline quickly confirmed that Margie is welcome to fly with the company in the future and that she was not reported to the FAA.
The airline did back up the authority given to flight attendants, however, saying:
“Please understand that while our inflight crew members are dedicated to providing a pleasant and enjoyable flight experience for all of our guests, they’re also responsible for the safety of all individuals on board our flights. For this reason, any guest behavior that could constitute crew interference or harassment is treated very seriously.
While our crew is trained to de-escalate challenging guest situations, when those efforts are not successful, the crew is required to remind disruptive guests that Federal Aviation Administration regulations require passengers to follow crew instructions and that the flight crew reserves the right to involve law enforcement authorities if the passenger in question fails to comply. In this particular instance, because there were no further issues during the flight, law enforcement authorities were not summoned to meet the plane upon landing, nor was the guest reported to the FAA, as was suggested in your note. At that time, the matter was deemed closed.”
As passengers, we are grateful to flight attendants, who are trained and empowered to ensure the safety of flight and curb unruly, unsafe passenger behavior. But when it comes to using intimidation as a means of compliance, there is a fine line between exerting authority and abusing it. And if you believe the account provided by Margie, these Virgin America flight attendants didn’t de-escalate the situation at all. They took the authority over their passenger and wielded it like a weapon.
She isn’t alone in reporting these types of in-flight situations gone awry in recent months. Julie Rojewski, a program manager at Michigan State University, recently blogged about her own unfortunate experience on American Airlines where she was threatened to be placed on the airline’s “list for belligerent passengers.”
Another passenger, Paula Wicks, told me she took the wrong seat on a Houston-bound United Airlines flight last summer. When she questioned why her seat assignment on a half-empty plane mattered, the flight attendant told her she would miss her connection in Houston and be arrested.
In Wicks’ case, the flight attendant followed through with the punishment, and Wicks was led off the plane by Houston airport police. I told Wicks to request the police report, which stated that Wicks had “caused a disturbance,” and added, “No charges. No arrest.”
Since this troubling incident on Virgin America, Margie has traveled for business but she has changed airlines. She laments that throughout this experience, nobody asked for her side of the story. She has begun giving her frequent flier miles away to friends, and is saddened that her long-term relationship with an airline she really loved has ended.
“I won’t fly on Virgin America again,” she says.
If you feel you are being treated unfairly on a flight, you should:
- Take a deep breath. Don’t ask for the agent’s name or tell them you’re going to get them fired. Besides, the chances of that are unlikely.
- Talk to your seatmates. You might need a reliable witness if your version of the story is later called into question.
- Record your exchange, if you can do so discreetly. Audio or video can help if it shows you were doing the right thing.
- File a written, factual report with the airline after you’re at your destination.