Passenger Declares Inflight Medical Emergency, Hoping For An Upgrade

On Friday American Airlines flight 3508 from Pensacola to Miami returned to the Pensacola airport when a passenger on board said she had a medical emergency. Only there was no medical emergency. She just wanted an upgrade.

The flight, operated by American’s wholly owned subsidiary Envoy Air, was back on the ground for about an hour. Everyone else besides that woman was delayed about an hour and a half. She, however, is under arrest.

When the plane was inflight the woman explained she had an emergency and “wanted a bigger seat.” Since there was a medical issue reported the pilot declared an emergency. Once back on the ground the woman revealed that “she was faking the medical condition to get a bigger seat.”

The the woman refused to deplane in Pensacola, so everyone was removed from the aircraft. Fear of coach may well be a medical condition, and she’s being held under the state’s Baker Act which allows temporary involuntary confinement for mental health evaluation.

Self-upgrading to business class has never been considered okay. It also rarely ever works. I’ve seen people try it and they’re always sent back to coach. Usually they’re a bit sheepish as they head back, sometimes offering some innocent-sounding explanation about how they thought it was the same cabin (no they didn’t!) and the seat was empty anyway.

Passengers who refuse to move get the David Dao treatment. In fact here’s video of a passenger on United being dragged off of a Shanghai – Newark flight after trying to upgrade himself to business class several times and stealing champagne.

Asking for an upgrade seems like a better strategy than faking it. Coming up with a plausible reason for needing the upgrade (such as feeling unwell) seems better still. But faking a medical emergency inflight isn’t a good idea. Diversions are costly, and though the woman may never face charges she certainly would have been better off taking the 1 hour 40 minute flight in her assigned seat.

American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145
American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145

In this case asking for a bigger seat was especially odd, since the aircraft was an Embraer ERJ-145 which has no premium cabin and the only seats that aare even considered ‘Main Cabin Extra’ are exit row seats. Even if the exit row was empty, it seems unlikely someone with medical distress would be moved there.

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, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. @Gary the self-upgrades often do work.

    On a flight with not-full F, if you compare the seatmap in, say, the United App, with the number of people sitting in F, you’ll often find there’s more people physically in F than listed on the seatmap.

  2. I got a lie flat seat after I threw up twice sitting in Y because of an illness and the flight attendant thought I would fare better lying down, and to his credit I didn’t throw up after that.

    By far the best service and worst overall experience I’ve had on BA.

  3. Note to self : check seat guru to confirm cabin layout before coming up with a fakakta scheme for a free upgrade

  4. @ Gary — My emotional support pony has a fear of flying in economy,, so he always dresses in his Sunday best and we score a free upgrade every time.

  5. Note how much gentler were the cops in communist China compared to how those Chicago thugs handled Dao.

  6. I am still uncertain in ORD if Dao was removed by sworn law enforcement officers or if it was some sort of airport/city hired security detail.

    I’m always mad at the media how sloppy they are they just say i.e. “was removed by security,” “met by security.”

    “Security” means nothing, other than they didn’t do proper research.

    For starters, exactly how is the police force handled at ORD?

    In my home town airport, BOS, police services are handled by Troop F of the Mass State Police, so you would be dragged by a MA State Trooper. I would imagine, but I’m not sure, that the troopers also have Sargents and lieutenants, although maybe they would leave dragging to troopers who would be similar to a patrol officer in a typical city police department.

    But it is ludicrous that in 99% of stories like this they just say “security.”

    Security could mean anything from a minimum wage college kid with no experience to a well trained and armed SWAT team of either the local jurisdiction or the FBI. Or it could mean a TSO from the TSA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *