So the first guy on the plane can’t get his bag into the overhead bin. It’s a puddle jumper, so the bins are small, and he’s got one of those backpack with large wheels. Clearly frustrated. Only one flight attendant, chooses not to help, just snaps at him: “Next time, check your bag!” Awesome. Clearly going to be a fun flight.
Guy says “I can’t check it.” Why? No idea. Filled with gold. Has his medicine in it. Not a clue. But clearly, this is not going well.
And this, ladies and gents, is how I get kicked off the plane. Since we’re stuck behind this guy, and I’m standing there anyway, and this flight attendant is badgering him, I ask the following question: “Excuse me, ma’am, what’s your name?” Yes, I really did say ma’am; I actually talk like that. I didn’t tell her why I was asking, though having just snapped at a customer, I sort of assumed she knew. She says “Cheryl”. Or Sheryl, since I don’t have spelling: she might have been wearing a nametag but I didn’t see it at a glance and was trying to politely not look at her chest in close quarters.
That’s it. That’s the end of the conversation. Guy eventually gets his bag in overhead bin, I sit down, he sits down, people get on plane. Another gent sits down (BriefCase guy) and she tells him case has to go in overhead bin (right, because we’re in Row 1!) so I get up and put my backpack in an overhead, settle back with my tablet, start reading. The Briefcase guy shakes his head at having to put his bag in overhead and I joke “perils of Row 1” and give him a smile. Back to reading.
I sort of vaguely overheard her ask for the gate agent, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I think she may have asked BagTrouble guy to put his personal bag in the overhead (again, Row 1) and he may have complained it wasn’t a bag – can’t honestly say, as I was reading.
Next thing I know, gate agent shows up and she point to me and the guy who had trouble with his bag and says “I really don’t want these guys on my flight. I think they’re going to make trouble, I’m the only flight attendant, I’m not comfortable.” I’m a little in shock at this point. Gate agent asks for more info from her, she says “well they’re giving me attitude, and they refuse to put their bags in the overhead bins.”
“My bag’s actually in the overhead bin back there,” I chime in. “She didn’t even ask me. I just asked her name because she was rude to him and I was going to report her.” It occurs to me that I am wearing a lot of black; I consider whether it is wise to say that I am dressed this way for a funeral and not a threat. Bad idea. Don’t say “threat”. Stay calm.
“See?” she said. “He’s going to give me attitude. We’re not going to get along. I want him off.” Gate agent asks me to grab my bag and presto, I’m off the flight. No idea if the other guy got to stay on – hope so; he looked like he was having a bad enough day already.
From there, it is pretty routine: gate agent says there is nothing he can do about resolving it now, he wasn’t there, offers to put me on later United flight (can’t do it, supposed to be on a key Bing for Schools conference call with engineering, which is why I woke up at 3am to get on this flight) or Alaska Airlines to Oakland (no idea how to get from there to SFO, but timing works). I’m totally stunned, ask him what I’m supposed to do, and he tells me to call customer service, they’ll get her side of the story and mine and sort it out and in the meantime, pick a flight.
I opt for Oakland, run across the airport (side note: you can make it from one end of SeaTac to the other in about 8 minutes, if you sprint hard and get the train timing right) and presto – I’m writing this from the plane to Oakland. How I’m getting from Oakland to San Fran? No clue. But I’ll do the conference call, figure out how to get to SF to do my talk, then get back on another United flight to head to my grandfather’s funeral.
Tweeted about it when I finally got on the Alaska Airlines flight. Why? Not sure. I was still a little in shock. Angry. Social media means when you’re wronged, you get the chance to tell the whole world and I did. Not sure how I feel about that.
I do think the gate agent had to trust the flight attendant. In order for a business to function, in a moment where you don’t know exactly what has happened, you have to back your employee’s call. I’ve done it with my own employees, Microsoft has done it with me, it happens in every business. And you’ve got a plane full of people waiting to go, who shouldn’t be held up for me, regardless of the actual situation.
I obviously think the flight attendant shouldn’t have booted me. But I’m trying hard to be fair and put myself in her place: if she really did think I was going to cause problems on the flight, certainly better to get rid of me on the ground. And life is about social signals: she is a woman, I am a man; she is quite tiny, I am quite tall; it is 5am and nobody is at their best. I think of myself as polite and generally non-threatening but in that moment, maybe she didn’t perceive me that way.
Or maybe she’s a tyrant who used her ability to get me booted to punish me or potentially even protect herself. Certainly my complaint against her is going to be colored now, since Just World Bias virtually guarantees that a large portion of people are going to believe I was in the wrong, since I did get kicked off the plane. It is much more comfortable to believe that I’m a raving lunatic and their own travel plans are safe than it is to believe that someone could get arbitrarily kicked off a plane for asking the flight attendant’s name.
The real problem is: now what? Obviously, I’m still feeling angry (though laughing on Twitter with people made it substantially better, thanks in particular to @bdsams, who I now owe a drink). I don’t even know what United could do to make the situation better. They could refund the flight, Microsoft would get a little money back, and I’d still be pissed. They could personally give me some free flight but at the moment, I’m not feeling terribly interested in flying United again; I feel crappy about having to fly them again in a few hours but they are really the only way to get to grandpa’s funeral in a reasonable way. They could fire and publically flog the flight attendant but what is the point of that, unless she really is a tyrant and not just someone who actually felt threatened, which would be impossible to know unless she has some sort of history?
That’s the rub of a situation like this: it feels entirely lose-lose. I’m trying to take it philosophically. No one should get fired, nobody should boycott United, bad days happen. Unless it is a pattern and needs correcting. And maybe that’s where Twitter is actually useful in this: it helps us understand the patterns of large, disperse things (like airlines) and their effects on individuals.
In theory, as long as the system was big enough to disguise her behavior, this flight attendant could boot people periodically and it would go unnoticed. There would be individual injustices but the system would still be OK. Apparently the NYT has done a deep dive into this and it isn’t happening more often. I am somewhat reassured.
I can only say how it feels in the moment. How absolutely maddening it is to be booted from a flight, to feel as though you’ve been misperceived, to have no recourse in the moment. How I’m still all amped up, even though I’m safely seated on another plane. How my body can’t quite figure out whether it wants to cry or punch something. How common an injustice is doesn’t change the way you feel when it is happening to you. Feels weird to go with the race card, but is this how people feel when they are pulled over because they’re black? If I had been browner, would they have brought an air martial with them?
Landing now. Going to be a long day.
Also published on Medium.