It has happened again: Last week, a passenger was dragged off a Southwest flight. Unlike the infamous United incident a few months ago, this passenger was carried off by police officers, and there is no “it wasn’t our flight, but one of our regional partners” argument to be made.
However, it does appear that the passenger in question had a number of reasons or excuses ready to go at the beginning of the incident as she tried to stay on the airplane, first claiming a severe allergy and working her way through the ever-popular “I need to get where I’m going.”
I can’t speak for what the policy is at SWA with respect to pilot actions in these kinds of incidents. Every airline has its own protocols to follow, and while the captain is generally considered the final word once the airplane leaves the gate, the final say-so is sometimes a bit murky at the gate. Gate agents don’t like having their judgment questioned after they’ve let a passenger on. Further, they don’t want to be blamed for a delay, and they don’t always know what a crew had to deal with once the doors close. That said, more than one agent has been guilt of trying to pass the buck and just get the airplane off the gate.
Flight attendants are the ones who have to deal with the passengers once the door is closed. They are on the lookout for passengers who might be a problem, whether from intoxication, anger or frustration at broken travel plans, or a fear of flying or claustrophobia. If they sense that a medical issue could (or already has) materialized, they want to deal with it on the ground. In their mind, and with good reason, their preferred course of action is usually to have the passenger removed.
The pilots are in an odd spot at the gate. While they are clearly the final say once airborne, they have to trust others to do their jobs before leaving. Generally speaking, if the cabin crew wants someone off the airplane, the pilots will accommodate that request, and will often risk a scene to do so. Sometimes, passengers make it easy to make a decision by acting in an inappropriate fashion. All of this said, the captain is responsible for the safety of the flight as a whole, and anything that happens on his watch can be thrown back in his face—and will be.
I’ve had to deal with a few of these at-the-gate types of incidents in my career. Three stand out. They aren’t easy to deal with, they’re unpleasant for all involved, and while tact is often desired or needed, sometimes it just doesn’t help or have a place.
I wasn’t there for either of these two events. The crew, in my opinion, could have taken a stronger stance by simply announcing that the flight wasn’t going to go anywhere until the passengers in question removed themselves from the airplane. This is a harsh line in the sand, but it may be the most effective choice under the circumstances.
The chances are that another crew is not going to be handy to call to gate to operate the flight, and even if there is, once they hear about what is going on, they aren’t likely to step into a minefield by taking the flight. In my experience, even if the Chief Pilot’s Office got involved in something like this—either in person or on the phone—they tend to back up the pilots and agree that the flight will not operate until the offending passenger is removed.
A secondary option, though one that is not always available, is to push for an equipment swap if another airplane is available. This would require everyone to deplane and move to another gate. At the new gate, the gate agents and airport police can prevent the offending passenger(s) from boarding.
In the three cases that I can recall in detail involving passenger disruptions at the gate, one ended with a trio of intoxicated men agreeing to leave with no resistance when the police came on board. The second required intervention from a family member traveling with the individual in question, along with an assertive discussion with the gate agent, who felt she was going to be blamed.
The last one was the most similar to the UAL and SWA incidents. The passenger was a belligerent woman who was being extremely uncooperative and verbally abusive. To allow her to stay on would have undermined the authority of my flight attendant, and could have therefore affected her safety. I had to explain to the woman that we were having her removed and why, and when she began to say she wouldn’t get off the airplane, I made it clear we’d cancel the flight outright. I had to make the same comment to the gate agent, since he was pushing us to keep her. When he realized he’d be responsible for rebooking an entire cabin of passengers versus just one, he agreed to work with us.
All of this brings up another point that was lost in the shuffle of the Republic/UA debacle. Back in the day, regional airlines had their own gate agents. They don’t anymore. The agents are either contracted from a third company (and get paid around minimum wage) or are employees of the mainline brand. This often creates tension and a disconnect, because when situations like this arise, not everybody is on the same team. All anyone knows is that somebody at HQ is going to start asking questions, so everybody gets defensive.
As the pilot, it is best to remember who is ultimately going to be held the accountable, and for that matter, who has the most to lose. The answer is simple: It’s us. That’s no different in a Cessna 150 or a Boeing 747. If you’re willing to exercise the responsibility of being pilot in command in one airplane, you need to be ready, willing, and able to do it in all.
In either of these cases, it would have just taken one pilot to stand up and say they weren’t going to take a problem passenger. To emphasize how far this goes, the same can be said if the problem is one of the cabin crew. Fly for an airline long enough, and you’ll also have to deal with a flight attendant who shouldn’t be at work that day.
When it comes to the passengers, though, no matter how upset they are or how bad their day is going, once they step on the airplane, they have to behave themselves. They can file all the complaints they want later. But from entering to exiting, they need to play by the rules, even if they are asked to leave the flight. And as operators of the airplane, we need to recognize that everything we do is likely being recorded, and make sure that we do whatever we can to avoid someone being dragged off.—Chip Wright