Passenger Lawyering Up After American Airlines Refuses to Accommodate His Smoking as a Disability

Joel Trent who describes himself on Facebook as a Reverend and says he studied criminal justice, says that American Airlines failed to accommodate his disability — and he plans to sue.

Only his disability is an addiction to nicotine and his complaint is that he was unable to smoke while waiting for a flight from St. Thomas to Miami.

The aircraft arrived late in St. Thomas and this meant he was in the airport longer than expected. And he was told he couldn’t step outside without being escorted by an American Airlines employee, something they were unwilling to do.

Many travelers do not realize that you go through customs when departing US territories (including the Virgin Islands) for the mainland. There is a duty free allowance that’s double ($1600) what’s allowed entering from a foreign country. However duties do apply, and there are checks.

The man’s issue though isn’t with the airport (for not providing a smoking lounge) or with US customs legislation or even with the 1916 treaty with Denmark which ceded St. Thomas (along with St. Croix and St. John) to the U.S. His problem is with American Airlines.

And his criminal justice training leads him to believe that — since you clear customs departing the US Virgin Islands for the mainland — he was being held against his will inside the airport and this constitutes “unlawful detention.”

It is reasonable to be frustrated by a three hour delay. It is reasonable for a smoker to be itching for a cigarette after going without one for several hours, though that’s something to plan for and there are myriad strategies for managing this. It is not reasonable to ‘lawyer up’ and claim civil rights have been violated when an airline employee wasn’t willing to escort a passenger out of the post-customs inspection section of the terminal.

(HT: @passengershaming)

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 »

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  1. I’m not sure if this is going to fly or not but I love it when people mess with the airlines. We have no choice but to agree to contracts of adhesion if we want to fly. Seems like the shoe is on the other foot now.

  2. Good luck with that, Mr. Trent. Your “criminal justice training” should tell you that a disability under ADA requires that the condition significantly limits or restricts a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning or working. See, The need to smoke is not a disability under the Act, although nicotine addition may qualify as a disability to the extent that an employer may not be able to penalize smoking cessation efforts such as nicotine replacement strategies. See, Allen, Everybody’s Vaping For the Weekend: Nicotine Addiction As A Workplace Disability, 83 U. Cin. L. Rev. 1393, 1411 (2016).

  3. He can seek a lawyer all he wants but I suspect unless he pays a big upfront fee no lawyer is going to take the case.

  4. I suggest calling movie star Stormy Daniels lawyer or lawyer Michael Cohen the Trump fixer 😉 🙂

  5. Very much a loser of a lawsuit. Flights get delayed all the time. No, you do not have a right to a personal escort from the airline to help you get a smoke.

  6. Good stuff. I want to know why almost all airports have taken out smoking areas inside security. Sure I don’t smoke but I also don’t want extra people going through TSA because they had to go outside to smoke. It’s silly. I also miss those glass smoking boxes in terminal C at STL. Good times 🙂

  7. I believe the third island that the US purchased from Denmark is St. John – not St. Martin. And this guy’s claim is BS.

  8. Would be surprised if they would let AA employees escort him back into the country (territory). I have been on the wrong side of customs and border enforcement in Canada (after US preclearance), China and the EU after flight cancellations and in every case, had to be escorted back into the country by law enforcement of some kind.

  9. @RetiredLawyer Your comment is based entirely on whether smoking is an ADA-protected disability.

    But, wouldn’t you say that the ADA issue is, in legal-speak, “moot”?

    The ADA applies to employer/employee relationships. This guy’s a frickin’ air passenger. He don’t get no stinkin’ ADA protections. The fact that he’s smoking mad doesn’t give him any legal basis for smoking, mad.

  10. @RetiredLawyer – So, I just learned the ADA applies to non-employment situations. Therefore my previous comment was incorrect, and I agree with your earlier comment. But also, doesn’t alcohol addiction also fall under ADA? Or is that just employee/employer?

  11. Just throwing some thoughts out there. I am no lawyer, I agree with most the smoking part is totally bogus, but wouldn’t there be a case to be made regarding the fact that the passenger is pretty much held hostage past security and does not have the possibility to go wherever he pleases?


  12. @DaninMCI – As a prior smoker, I agree. If people want to sit in the smoking zoos, let them. They’ll be less stressed and less delays for everyone. A win/win situation.

  13. Smoke, even second hand smoke is carcinogenic. Creating a smoker’s area which will not cause second hand smoke to others is costly and often impossible. Our legal system and litigious society have in this case protected non smokers from carcinogenic smoke.
    I have noticed smoking booths in FRA, maybe their legal system is less scary to operators.

  14. 1) Addiction to nicotine is an addiction NOT a disability!

    2) He was not held against his will! He was absolutely free to exit the airport. He simply would have to exit the secure area and re-clear customs and immigration. The bottom line is that he did not want to go through the hassle and risk missing his flight (as this of course would have been time consuming). So, he instead feels that somebody should give him a personal escort.

    Good luck with that lawsuit. Will not make it to trial. Will get thrown out!

  15. I suspect the judge who’s assigned to this nonsense case will not be gentle about expressing his distain for this clown wasting the court’s time.

  16. He voluntarily got himself addicted to nicotine, most likely at an early age. His problem. Not American’s, not TSA’s, not anyone else’s. His problem.

  17. He voluntarily chose to become addicted to nicotine, likely at a young age. His problem. Not American’s problem, not TSA’s problem, and definitely not the problem of those around him. His problem.

  18. Synd,
    no one forced him to stay inside the customs area, he just could not get someone to escort him in a convenient and timely manner.. it was basically his choice to stay..

  19. Pres. H.W. Bush signed the ADA law into effect in 1990. It has been a can of worms ever since. Businesses are hauled into court if a measured distance in a handicap space is off even by a 1/2 inch. The businesses will tell you it is basically extortion by lawyers so they will go away. But 1st, the lawyers want BIG payoff money for their time spent chasing you down.

    It will be impossible to get rid of this “law”. Too many vested interests are now in this money making machine. America, “Land of the Free”. What a joke. You’re free to breathe air on your own property, and that’s about it.

  20. I’m surprised nobody mentioned yet that this ‘sick’ individual has alternate means available to him for ingesting nicotine that do not involve subjecting others to second hand smoke-borne carcinogens.

  21. He can always get a patch to provide his “fix” . Or did he not think about doing something besides polluting others air?

  22. I hope his experience influenced him to give up smoking. It seems not that many people care about their health enough to quit. Suffering withdrawals through long flights, meetings, dining out, etc. should motivate.

  23. Pathetic! An addiction is a personal choice and not a disability.l I know nothing of American law, but common sense should prevail here that laws are laws, and to break them for a date with Lady Nicotine is hardly something to be upheld in a court of law. My other concern is that this man is a Reverend who should be leading people to become responsible members of society and to love their neighbour , and yet would appear to be put his own selfish addictive needs before the needs of others. Not a good reference for Christianity I am afraid. But of course, a lawyer could make a lot of lovley money taking on this case. Good luck to him! But as I said ‘pathetic’.

  24. Karen Hebert October 25, 2018
    I am a former smoker and quit over 25 years ago and I myself would not even sit next to any one who didn’t smoke without asking if it bothered them. This is call respect. Since I quit smoking, on my own, I don’t even like to be around people who smoke. It that’s will power to quit which. You can quit on your own if you want to. No one is holding a cigarette to your mouth at gun point so I suggest that you have respect for others. It is not a disability addiction it is a choice for you to stop smoking if you have such a problem with it. Two faced Christian and I will say a prayer for you. There is also food served there so I say no more.

  25. Hard to take someone seriously when they tout their level of education but can’t be bothered to spell “scheduled” correctly (or use spell-check, for that matter).
    And why exactly does it matter who he voted for?

  26. You must be two really weak people to no be able to go 3 hours without driving another nail in your coffin!!! I hope you nave no children that you are killing with your smok,e you are not a problem. if you kill yourself.

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