If another passengers assaults you onboard an airplane, do flight attendants have an obligation to intervene?
A story on Flyertalk sets up an interesting hypothetical.
The plane had landed and a passenger was standing in the aisle of row one, waiting to deplane. Another first class passenger grabbed the man’s shoulders and forcibly moved him aside in order to retrieve a bag from the overhead bin. The displaced passenger, let’s call him Jimmy, verbally protested. The offending passenger, let’s call him Bozo, unleashed a profane-laced verbal tirade against the protesting passenger, then reached into the overhead bin, yanked his bag out, and in doing so struck Jimmy on the head with it.
Remember, this was in row one. Two flights attendants allegedly watched the scene unfold. Jimmy called to the FAs for assistance but the FAs refused to help. They looked at each other then said there was nothing they could do. When Bozo heard the call for help, he warned Jimmy that he would be waiting outside the jet bridge. Again, the FAs just shrugged.
Bozo was indeed waiting for Jimmy, so Jimmy made a beeline for a gate agent and asked her to call the police. Upon hearing this, Bozo took off. Meanwhile, a supervisor showed up and asked to hear the story. She interrupted Jimmy before he could even finish, stating, “They have landing procedures they need to focus on when taxiing to the gate. They can’t keep an eye on everything going on during that process…it’s not their responsibility to get involved in these situations.”
So much for we are primarily here for your safety, thinks Jimmy.
The supervisor spoke with FAs, who denied seeing anything. Police arrived and took Jimmy’s statement, but he declined to press charges. The police did track down Bozo (he was connecting to another flight) and issued him a warning.
Jimmy later wrote back the airline (United) and received a note back stating that no one could corroborate his story.
The story hits close to home because I encountered a similar incident on an SAS flight a number of years ago. On that flight, the passenger also threatened me and was “waiting for me” on the jetbridge. Like Jimmy, I did not seek confrontation.
There are a few issues to discuss concerning this incident, including the fact pattern and the law. First, why did Jimmy not press charges if the story transpired as described? Second, why would the FAs lie…are they that heartless? Third, why wouldn’t other passengers have come to Jimmy’s aid or at least whipped out their mobile phones? For that matter, why didn’t Jimmy start videoing Bozo and the FAs?
But I don’t think Jimmy is the one at fault here, even if he should have filed the report. I was so shaken up when I was assaulted that I just wanted to scram. Jimmy was also battered twice.
Let’s dig a little deeper though and talk about the airline’s duty of care in this incident. Airlines are considered common carriers and must exercise the “utmost” care and diligence with respect to their passengers. But when does an airline’s duty of care stop? When the plane lands? When the passengers disembark? Or perhaps when the passengers leave the baggage claim area? There’s no black and white answer and the common thread that would implicate carrier liability is negligence, or a failure to use reasonable care, resulting in damage or injury to another.
Here, the issue comes down to whether a FA’s duty of care extends to protecting one passenger from another when a plane is on the ground but before the aircraft door opens. You could make the argument either way, right? On the one hand, the passenger had nowhere else to go. No one was asking the FAs to jump in the middle of the fight, but they could have yelled at Bozo to back off. On the other hand, this incident had nothing to do with the safety of the flight itself. Why should FAs get involved in a disagreement between two passengers? The law is not clear.
If the incident occurred as described, Jimmy was a victim of assault (placing someone in reasonable apprehension of physical danger) and battery (unwanted bodily contact). If FAs witnessed this, they should have at least backed up Jimmy’s account. Jimmy should have filed the police report. I admire him for not fighting back.
I really feel bad for Jimmy. While there are two sides to every story, the fact pattern is all too familiar to me. I see nasty passengers like Bozo all the time who push and shove when a plane lands as if they are the only ones wanting to quickly disembark. While revenge may feel sweet, you open yourself up to liability if you return an eye for eye and it is not in self-defense.
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