Saturday, January 03, 2009

Another Airline 'Apology'

Airlines never really admit they're at fault for anything. Oh, if they get jammed up in bad publicity they'll eventually put out a statement expressing their regret that some deluded passenger may have taken offense for some perceived grievance.

The current classic example: The apology and statement by AirTran Airways about the nine Muslim family members (all but one native U.S. citizens) who were hauled off a flight at Reagan airport and humiliated because a hysterical fellow-passenger reported hearing one of them speculating to another about where the safest place to sit on an airplane was. (Answer: There ain't one, if it's going down.)

AirTran describes this horror as "involving verbal comments made by a passenger and overheard by other passengers." You will note that so far, AirTran has not specified what these "verbal comments" were. (And of course, reporters have not demanded that AirTran answer the question: Given that you made a federal case out of this, who specifically said specifically what, according to your passenger informant, and in direct quotes please?)

Air marshals were informed and the alarm bells rang at Keystone Kops Central. Emergency! Flight scuttled. Presumed perpetrators, including three children, were "detained for interrogation," AirTran says.

Oops, sorry, no security threat. Just hysteria from some passenger who evidently thinks he's a Junior G-Man in the air and needs to be informing the authorities whenever his mind is, uh, troubled.

Here's the money quote in the statement issued by AirTran:

"Later in the day six of the nine detained passengers approached the customer service counter and asked to be rebooked to Orlando. At the time, the airline had not been notified by the authorities that the passengers were cleared to fly and would not rebook them until receiving said clearance. One passeneger in the party became irate and made inappropriate comments, The local law enforcement officials came over and escorted the passengers away from the gate podium." [Italics mine]

Let's consider the thinking behind that official statement. The Muslim passengers had been insulted, humiliated, detained -- and then cleared of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Later, AirTran says in its apology, one of them becomes "irate" while trying to rebook and makes "inappropriate" comments -- and they call the cops on him again!

"Irate" to an officious gate agent may be "angry," or "upset" or even "insistent" to the rest of us. And what in the world is an "inappropriate" comment, as defined by some gate agent who represents an airline that already has got itself involved in an ugly incident involving the public humiliation of this family?

Hey, I got one.

[Update: I'm amazed at how reporters on this story are letting AirTran get away with not specifying exactly what the "inappropriate comments" were. In the reporting, it's apparent that reporters are simply not asking the AirTran flack to specify just what it is the man said that got him and his extended family hauled off. Here's the comment the AirTran flack was allowed to get away with:

"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn’t have made on the airplane, and other people heard them. Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions."

So what did the guy say that caused all of this commotion? And who defines “inappropriate?” Didn’t George Carlin make a pretty good point when he demanded to know just what the words were that couldn’t be said on the airwaves?]

{Update Jan. 5: I don't like to argue with a comment (that way lies madness), but I posted the one here from a reader claiming that there is no mystery about what was said. The reader, obviously meaning well, then paraphrases the allegedly inappropriate comment.

The point I am trying to make is: What specifically is an "inappropriate" comment, according to AirTran? What exactly did the allegedly offending passenger say, and what did the hysterical fellow passenger or passengers report they heard said?

The main point is, if we're going to include "inappropriate comments" in law enforcement matters (as occurred in this incident), we need to define what exactly that means. And if we haul a family off a plane for "inappropriate" comments, we need to specify exactly what those comments were -- not justify the action with some vague paraphrase. Again, I refer to George Carlin. What exactly are the words you cannot say? Give us a list.



Glenn Fleishman said...

I recall reading in Peter Greenberg's Travel Detective book (pre-2001) that when he complained to a ticket agent about an early morning flight that never flew (the airline claimed problems literally every day, but used the time slot to get people to book), he nearly had security sicced on him. Now, he would have wound up in detention.

Airlines have become petty dictators. Wait, did I say become? Maybe more like petty warlords with an emperor who enforces their power.

Anon said...

There were audio interviews with the passengers involved so theres no mystery about what they said.

Basically, the muslim passengers were having a conversation amongst each other about where the safest place would be to sit on a plane in the event of an emergency of some type. They were debating the issue, and this debate created a sense of concern that they were talking about their own seating on the plane they were on in the context of some hypothetical emergency situation.