Friday, February 1, 2013

The escalation of conflict in air travel


This article was recently brought to my attention on Twitter, and I thought it was just too relevant not to share.  In it, an airline passenger asks a flight attendant if he may pass through the curtain separating first class and coach, to walk through the service area to his wife, who was seated in his cabin but across the plane. The attendant says no, because there is a sign up on the curtain that says you may not pass between cabin classes. 

“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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”

The whole article is a worthwhile read, for anyone who travels by plane (not only those of us who are air-travel-security-and-regulation nerds), because we need to be having more open conversations about the rights of passengers. Frankly, since the enforcement of airline rules is 99% of the time in the name of security, I see it as an even more elemental conversation—one about the rights of the individual versus the group.

I’ve written before about how security is not priceless—our military makes dollars-and-cents decisions every day about exactly how much American and non-American lives are worth, and so the idea that all rights cease as you enter an airport or an airplane is completely crazy to me, because security has a price, and in my estimation, we have inflated it.

So here was have this trade-off—though I recognize that flight attendants must enforce orderliness and calm, given the sometimes-fraught experience of flying (I speak as someone with a pretty major fear, on top of the regulatory clusterf*&! that flying is nowadays anyway), it is also completely inexcusable to me that this situation got so out of hand. 

"The Federal Air Marshal Service operates largely out of public view, but the secrecy surrounding its operations can put travelers in a difficult position when interacting with agents whose role is not always clear. 

On a different flight, a passenger who had made several trips to the bathroom was questioned by an air marshal and detained by the police after the plane landed. 

"We have reached a point where you check in your civil liberties when you check in your bag,” the traveler said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s a little over the top what’s going on.""

Amen. 

By the way, I happen to find the comments section nauseatingly self-righteous—you bought the seat, not the right to walk around? No one should fly if they don’t like the rules (that's cool, I guess I'll just never see my trans-Atlantic family again)? I think a much more productive conversation would be around MAKING JUST RULES, but apparently I’m a radical…

(image public domain)

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