Southwest Flight Delayed Over a Vodka Joke

Frequent flyers are all-too familiar with the 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.

A passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles apparently just re-learned that lesson. After multiple delays he made joked about being comped a vodka, and that got him booted from the aircraft and confronted by law enforcement.

The man was on board Southwest Airlines flight WN478 from Sacramento to Los Angeles last Wednesday and the flight was in the midst of a three and a half hour delay. First a maintenance light forced the aircraft to return to the gate, and later the airline determined they needed to refuel the aircraft.

Flight attendants passed out water to passengers. He “said something [like], ‘They should be passing out vodka because we’ve been waiting so long.'” And that led to an even further delay.

[T]he flight attendant, who he described as young, did not take kindly to that comment. “She came by and was like, ‘I don’t think that and I didn’t like your joke,’” he explained. “Then my wife tried to butt-in there and say, ‘Look it, we’ve been on this plane for hours.’ And she says, ‘Well, so have I, so get used to it.’”

Uzelac and the other passengers were shocked by the flight attendant’s reaction. “Then all of a sudden, I see her on the telephone up in front,” he said. That’s when the plane turned back to the gate again and several Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies came on board to ask the man next to Uzelac to leave.

“And people started yelling then. In fact, people stood up. I stood up. People were saying this man didn’t do anything,” Uzelac said.

The passenger was not charged with any crime. According to Southwest,

We regret any less-than-positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft. We welcome over 100 million customers each year, and we aim to maintain the comfort of all while delivering Southwest hospitality.

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 not oursourced to law enforcement. 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, 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 do not want to opine on this particular episode as I was not there. But, Mr. Leff, your background allows you a great—almost unique—opportunity to write about the rules. Not as legal advice, of course.

    For example, I heard once that the flight attendants can tell you not to use the bathroom from first class before 30k feet but can not enforce that policy/rule/whatever if you go anyway. Is that true?

    What about generalizing the story you discussed? What types of behavior will lead to eviction (as it were) from the plane? Is the answer sufficiently broad or ill-defined that the cabin crew can essentially make up their own rules? If they are wrong, and you are on an EU flight, are you entitled to compensation? (I refer to the EU because I assume you are completely out of luck in the US.)

  2. I find the timing of this story ironic. I just flew Southwest on Monday and yesterday Southwest sent me a survey. In the comments section I told them that while the flight attendants on my flight were fine, I am always wary about flight attendants on a power trip as I have seen it way too often. I don’t need to go into detail as many people have experienced their nastiness first hand. My friend calls them “Nazi Airlines.”

    I have learned that it is best to engage with them as little as humanly possible. A hello is plenty for me when coming onboard. Also a verbal “yes” if I am in the exit row. That is it! There is nothing to be gained talking to them. They are NOT your friends. Expect they don’t have a sense of humor and anything you say can and will be used against you.

  3. Usually passengers of this kind have a mental problem but this time it looks like the FA has a mental problem. And no, I don’t think they should then be entitled to disability payments and free Medicare.

  4. It is time for the passengers who effectively have a contract with these airlines to deliver us from point a to point b on a prescribed schedule. It seems somewhat recent that the airlines have changed their focus to move the masses while ignoring the collateral damage to a growing number of customers.

    It is time to engage our legislators and any oversight groups to represent the traveller and put the pressure on the airlines to stop screwing the passengers with impunity.

    It would be interesting to see what the effects of the EU rules for compensation and fines has had on European reliability.

  5. FAA needs to step up and let the PAX sue for our rights to be treated fairly when these FA become the KINGS/QUEENS of the sky. To delay the plane for everyone else because of this FA makes it so that others on the plane miss their connections, ride shares home etc.

    I miss the “seasoned” FA who take every thing in stride. Or as my Mother in Law says take a Zoloft it makes you feel “I don’t give a F##K what others say pill”

  6. FA are NOT God and need to realize that they are there for Safety only ! Not to be the Joke Police. That FA needs to go back to Hospitality School. What is with these New Kids No self esteem. It is like the female version of being shy in the locker room. Too small so no one can judge me.

  7. Remember. Flight attendants are there primarily for our safety. And also to play Candy Crush after rushing through e drink service.

  8. My friend was in major trouble when he saw his friend was also on the plane, a few rows back, and yelled out “Hi, Jack!”.

  9. Imagine what a sad existence this flight attendant must have had in her formative years.

  10. I’ve read many accounts of this incident. In every incident it appears the flight attendant was in the wrong and on a power play. THERE WAS NO SAFETY ISSUE, and the airline used the cops to get him off the plane on false pretenses. The cops found nothing illegal, and did not arrest him. Now once off the plane (the damage was now done), he could not not re-board. He got screwed. And I bet there is nothing in the contract of carriage that can help him. It’s Southwest’s Airline and SW can determine who is flying or not. @Gary, in your opinion, can he sue, and if so, can he win anything of value? If it were me, I might sue for a public apology in a press release AND in full page ads in 5 major papers across the country. What remedy do you see, @Gary? With more and more shit like this happening, I vote for body cams on flight attendants so we can determine who is telling the truth when an incident happens. I’m serious. And, oh, we should all pressure Congress to get the equivalent of an EU 261 in the US.

  11. I can’t understand why people who love Southwest Airlines have this cult-like mentality about how great the company is. It’s not – it sucks just as much as flying any other airline.

    If you are a frequent flyer, it’s even much, much worse, because you get absolutely no perks like a shot at a 1st class seat, meal, or even a chance to reserve a seat. Not to mention, they rarely are the cheapest option – that totally disappeared 10 years ago. Now you pay for those “bags flying free” in the price of your ticket, whether you check them or not.

    Not to mention their constant major maintenance lapses and no ability to re-route you when delays happen.

    Southwest has gone way downhill since Herb left. I just don’t get the odd love that persists for them.

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