Back on October 16 a man flying Southwest from Los Angeles to Dallas claimed to be flirting, playing footsie with his seat opponent, and even argued that she had come on to him. She asked for a new seat though, and he got up and followed appearing to keep up his romantic pursuit.
A Seat Mate You Just Want to Punch
The man, who was released on parole days before the flight, had overdosed on heroin three days prior to travel and used used methamphetamine just the day before.
According to the criminal complaint against him, after his advances were rebuffed he “began whispering threats.” All this got the woman comped a free drink so add this tot the list of ways to get free drinks on Southwest.
When a flight attendant confronted the man, he went off with profanities for 30 seconds, then sat down and shut up for the rest of the flight. The pilot decided to divert to Albuquerque out of an abundance of caution. The man was arrested on arrival there.
Brafford jumped to his feet and yelled at him, shouting something like, “this is not happening, we’re not doing this,” the complaint said. His “erratic behavior” led the flight attendant to think Brafford was on drugs. The attendant spoke to the pilot and said he thought they needed to divert the flight and remove Brafford “before anything else happened,” the complaint said.
The emergency landing delayed the flight by an hour and a half and disrupted the travel plans of some passengers, the complaint said.
He claims “the female passenger had put her arm on his and that he thought she was flirting.” After the woman changed seats to the back of the plane he says he merely went to her to say “if he was bothering her, all she needed to do was tell him.” That was clearly unwise, though he says he went back to his seat and did nothing further.
Does Southwest’s Open Seating Make This More Likely?
I like Southwest’s boarding process as a business traveler who often books late or changes plans, my elite status pretty much ensures me an aisle seat when I often find those fully booked last minute on major airlines.
However open seating – where everyone just picks a seat as they board – means someone looking to creep on another passenger can scan the aircraft and just sit next to them if there’s an open middle seat which there usually is. Southwest flights can be considered ‘target rich environments’ for this sort of behavior. Fortunately the behavior is rare.
In a traditional seating model you’re stuck in the seat to which you’ve been assigned, and there’s no way to know in advance whether it’s next to a potential victim or not.
Is Interfering With Flight Crew the Right Charge?
This man has been in prison for the last 10 months on charges he interfered with flight crew. He isn’t charged with anything related to unwanted touching of the woman sitting next to him.
According to his lawyer though he’s being charged with merely “deviating from the socially acceptable norms of airline travel.”
- He didn’t make any threats
- He didn’t touch flight crew
- He claims not to have disobeyed any order
- And since he’s smaller than the flight attendant who confronted him, he doesn’t think there was likely any intimidation
- Plenty of passengers have done even worse things and gotten away with it
The federal government argues that by “behaving in an uncooperative, aggressive and belligerent manner” he interfered with flight crew duties and can be punished.
His bench trial is scheduled for the end of the month and he’s facing up to 20 years in prison.
Right Issue, Wrong Case to Make It
This seems the perfect example of the axiom that bad cases make bad law. Cabin crew do go on power trips. In our hyper security sensitized environment the slightest misunderstanding between passenger and flight attendant can leave one wondering if they’ll be sent to Guantanamo. Question a flight attendant moving your bag in the overhead bin and you’re liable to get the dreaded, “are we going to have a problem today?”
Unfortunately this seems the worst possible case to challenge the tendency of airlines to outsource customer service confrontations to law enforcement.
Disagreeing with crew, even expressing loud opinions (“these Oasis seats are awful! the short ribs are nasty!”) can’t be a crime. Engaging flight attendants can’t either, even if they’re there “primarily for your safety” most of the time reading People isn’t actually a safety-related duty. Often confrontations are misunderstandings, and sometimes the result of prejudice. Just ask the professor kicked off American Airlines for possessing weapons of math instruction.
“Interfering with flight crew” has become vague and overbroad and should be challenged. Incurring costs to the airline and fellow passengers by forcing a diversion ought to be civilly actionable. Airlines should offer better and more regular customer service and conflict de-escalation training. And criminal prosecution ought to be reserved for criminal behavior rather than speech in the cabin. But this guy ought to be the first one subject to new reality show public hangings.
The Trump administration is bringing back the federal death penalty, but it's time to update executions for the modern era and reality TV. pic.twitter.com/6vNCFHHzvS
— gary leff (@garyleff) July 25, 2019