A Passenger Wanted Coffee as a Predeparture Beverage and That Nearly Got Him Kicked Off the Flight

A passenger on American Airlines flight AA5896 on February 2 from Long Beach to Phoenix shared his experience on Flyertalk with the first class flight attendant.

The flight was on a CRJ-900 regional jet operated by Mesa Airlines. I’ve had plenty of flights on Mesa and usually find their flight attendants to be excellent. However this story illustrates several problems facing commercial aviation in the U.S.

  • Post 9/11 power trip. With security as a constant focus, the slightest verbal misstep or misunderstanding can get a passenger kicked off a plane.

  • Poor service, with the airline unable to take action most of the time. Poor performers bring down the moral of those who provide excellent service, because great service doesn’t get rewarded in fact it just means more work picking up the slack for shirkers.

American Airlines EMB-175 Operated By Republic in Miami

The flight attendant was offering predeparture beverages. One passenger asked for an irish coffee. He reports that the flight attendant was happy to get one, but said it would be a few minutes since coffee wasn’t heated up yet.

A few minutes later she returned to the passenger, and said she couldn’t serve coffee. The passenger asked why.

She came unglued. voice raised – “Because the FAA won’t let us serve hot beverages on the ground. Are you going to have a problem with that?” Politely he responded, “No, Are you having a good day?”

She responded with something along the lines of, “I have to get everyone boarded, and you aren’t my priority. You are holding up boarding. Do you think I’m being combative or simply trying to do my assigned job?”

He continued to backpedal, asking if she was having a good day and apologizing.
She continued to escalate. “If you don’t settle down, I’ll have you taken care of. I’m going to speak to the captain now.”

The flight attendant went to speak to the captain and returned asking if the passenger was going to cause a problem threatening to “have the captain come back and take care of you.”

He assured her there was no problem. She continued to brow beat him, now including his wife (sitting next to him) in the tirade.

Finally, my wife, having had enough, said, “You appear to be a little combative. Is there a problem?” at that point, the FA included her in the tirade.

The [flight attendant] apparently had had enough and returned to the captain.

…[T]he captain said, “let’s take this outside”. As they exited the cockpit, the [flight attendant] said, “it’s the two in row 2 and the woman in 3a”. We were seriously concerned that the crazy lady was going to get us kicked off the flight.

They went outside and conferred with the ground supervisor for a couple minutes. He then came inside and spoke to the people and my wife, asking if there was going to be a problem. They all assured him that there never was a problem and that the escalation was totally one sided.

After spending a few minutes talking to the flight attendant the captain decided to depart.

The flight attendant is said to have “covered her name badge” so that passengers couldn’t identify her, and spent all but the last 10 minutes in the galley with the other flight attendant on board serving both first class and coach.

The passengers here on the one hand were lucky — not to get kicked off the flight. On the other hand it’s a miserable experience sitting through a tense flight like that.

I once flew Lufthansa first class Frankfurt – Mumbai where a flight attendant refused to provide the full meal service or even offer explanation of dessert. She tossed servingware down, and handed pieces to me to give to my wife, huffing and puffing each time she had to provide a course. I was yelled at for not having my tray out in advance of meal service. We spent the flight avoiding asking for anything even water, and considered asking to be downgraded.

This story happened a long time ago but I still remember how awkward and uncomfortable it made me feel, years later.

It turned out the crewmember had a health issue and went on leave shortly after we brought the incident to the airline’s attention. As an apology they offered to buy us dinner anywhere we liked. They covered the cost of Waku Ghin at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Usually complaints don’t end up so well but apparently the issue with the flight attendant was real and serious. Most of these types of interactions don’t involve a flight attendant being unwell, just in a bad mood.

It’s common to see a passenger concerned as their bag gets moved in the overhead bin, and a flight attendant ask “Are we going to have a problem?” the implied threat being the passenger will be removed from the plane for questioning a flight attendant.

  • There’s a semi-legitimate though far-fetched concern that a passenger could create a disturbance as a diversion. But the terrorist activity they’re covering for isn’t likely to take place on the ground…

  • However the post-9/11 culture is that everything is a security threat, and customer service gets outsourced to law enforcement. That’s how the United Express incident with Dr. David Dao being dragged off a plane and bloodied happened.

Customer complaints — or merely communication gaps that happen all the time between people who don’t know each other, and even those who do — need to be de-escalated. And airlines haven’t come close to doing enough on that front since United rolled out its plan on this front two years ago.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. As soon as an FA asks, “Are we going to have a problem?” two things become immediately obvious: the FA is the real problem and saying anything but words of contrition and worship will get you dragged off the flight.

  2. I feel bad for anyone who has to fly domestic frequently. The vast majority of my travel in trans-pacific, and as we all know, FAs on Asian carriers will wipe your ass to make you happy. I’ve never witnessed a power tripping FA on an Asian carrier, ever.

  3. If a flight attendant tells me he/she cannot serve coffee, that’s the end of it. I’ll do without a PFB or select something else. I fly at the front of the plane 90% of the time with complimentary upgrades. I don’t feel entitled to a seat up front. IMO asking why coffee is not available is pointless. Given the circumstances here, asking the flight attendant if he/she was having a good day was rude. Shame on these passengers for giving the FA a hard time. Had I been the Captain I would have removed them and let them make alternate travel arrangements.

  4. You may be right, you may be wrong….but the FRIGGIN FA is ALWAYS right !
    Sad but true.
    And the cockpit crew will almost always side with the biased FA (especially in the USA)
    Luckily people have phone cameras now and are willing to stand up/support other fliers.

  5. Assuming facts as portrayed are accurate, FA should have been removed from the flight. As a critical component of the flights operation, FA must demonstrate self control and cannot escalate a non-event.

  6. @Wayne You should work for American. You fit perfectly into their culture. Why? Because you fail to see the difference between a conversation and a demand. Asking for an explanation towards a potential solution is perfectly acceptable for a paying guest. Demanding and threatining is not.

  7. Wayne – you are the problem. No wonder FAs think they rule the cabin. They are f’in attendents…as in… for serving on customers. Enough bullcrap about “safety”.

  8. I read the FT post… I find it really weird that the passenger persisted asking the FA if she “was having a good day.” It’s obvious she wasn’t. Why keep asking? That would strike me as passive-aggressive. Not that it excuses the FA behavior.

  9. “Are we going to have a problem” is today’s equivalent of “xxxx is required by the Patriot Act” with no explanation offered.

  10. I have had great, good, bad and awful flight attendants on every carrier (US or International). I found it best if they don’t use good customer service skills, mine take over. Flying out of PHX, I have had some great flights and service on AA, but a few bad apples and social media today ruins a reputation of a company or a person quickly.

    Good job by providing a stellar dinner and putting the FA out on leave, whatever the reason!

  11. I’ll be recording any flight in the US or on a US airline for this reason. Completely power tripping and unreasonable. Assholes who don’t do their job, but feel protected by strict airline regs ….

  12. I’d be intrigued to know what AA does in re this. It is not okay that the FA escalated things but honestly asking ANYONE “are you having a good day” when they clearly are not is the equivalent of telling anyone who is upset to “just calm down”. It SOUNDS like you’re trying to be nice but you really aren’t, you are passive aggressively pointing out their rude behavior. Either let it go after she says the coffee isn’t warm yet (which it never is pre-flight in my experience) or keep your mouth shut and write a complaint later about the lack of coffee and the FA attitude. You are never going to get anywhere continuing a conversation like this. It is for SURE a first class FA’s job to not escalate things, but you can always help them out, just like you can with any service provider who is clearly NOT having a good day.

  13. Asking the FA if she is having a good day started the escalation. Smart ass comment.so when turns on you, don’t start complaining like an innocent

  14. All US born flight attendants should be fired and replaced with Asians. They are humble and understand service something most Americans can’t grasp. As for safety, I can figure out where the exit doors are.

  15. @jean delisi
    I agree with your statement that All US born flight attendants should be fired and replaced with Asians BUT not for your reason.
    I remember chatting (in economy) with a SQ cabin crew member as we were landing. She suddenly stopped and stated that she could not talk till we were on the ground because she had to be prepped for any landing emergency. She was dead serious and concentrating for 5 minutes and then spoke again after landing. These crew members take their job seriously.

  16. There should be more regulation on flight attendants in that they need to be severely punished for this kind of behavior.

  17. At that point, i’d worry about the competency and mental state of the flight attendant and would gladly take the next flight!

  18. Valid point Ed! Is this hothead FA really competent enough to handle am emergency? Not if she can’t even keep it together for… can I get a coffee?

  19. There are always two sides of an argument and most of the time we do not have all needed information

    When there is an argument, both sides usually have some reasons to be upset

    Every company have its own DNA culture that influences employees performance

    Fear can easily lead to an aggressive behavior

    Great Airlines have great employees that love their jobs

  20. It’s incredible if you think about it.

    Voluntarily paying for a travel service to take you somewhere comes with the risk of being removed by law enforcement and/or arrest.

    Gary is right. Amtrak doesn’t threaten its passengers at its first opportunity. Hotels don’t call for Law Enforcement when a guest asks a question. Uber drivers never ask me “Are we going to have problem?”

    And I’m not surprised this is AA YET AGAIN. So happy I bailed on them.

  21. This story is why nobody has any sympathy for cabin and cockpit crews when they get dragged through bankruptcy and lose retirement benefits. Far too many of them are deeply miserable people hiding behind an antiquated seniority system that promotes a dead-end job as some kind of “career.” Careers involve the acquisition of new skills, personal growth, and professional development. The flight attendant role was meant to be something a person did for a few years and then moved on. Instead, we’re stuck with a lot of hardened battle-axes who structure their entire day around making their own lives easier and have little to no interest in their customers.

    US carriers can add first class seats and fancy technology and other bells and whistles until they’re blue in the face, but until they address the generally wretched individuals comprising their front-line workforce, they’ll always be at a strategic disadvantage.

  22. Reminds me of a flight I had on UA soon after the CO/UA merger.
    I was flying in First domestic from IAD to LAX. Somewhere over DEN the lead [CO] FA announced we were getting ready for landing and to prepare the cabin for landing. Everyone looked bewildered.
    When a passenger mentioned that we were over DEN and still had 2 hours to fly to LAX – she said SHE knows better and SHE was the lead FA….he even showed her the inflight air map. She was also rude to me when I asked for a 2nd glass of wine and she said we were landing soon (still over DEN).

    So I asked another FA for the offending FA’s name – she also wasn’t wearing a name tag. The offending FA came running down the aisle to me SCREAMING Why do you want my name? I calmly said that she gave wrong directions to the aircraft causing many of us to think we were being diverted etc. She said I should keep my concerns to myself or else I will be arrested upon landing in …..LAX (in 2 hours).

    Upon landing in LAX I went to the gate agent and explained what happened asking to speak to the local LAX station manager. Many of the First class travelers also wanted to give negative feedback. The gate agent said they are not allowed to “rat” on fellow employees and that reporting this would do nothing.

  23. “Not feeling well” … maybe. “In a bad mood” … likely. I WAS married to one that brought it home in her carry on.

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