Whatever you do, don't ask for a flight attendant's name

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.

24 replies
  1. depicus
    depicus says:

    I haven’t heard her side of the story but it sounds from your account you deserved it. You don’t see it because I’m not sure why, I don’t know you but maybe when you have calmed down you will re-read what you wrote and understand why you were kicked.

    • depicus
      depicus says:

      Well my first clue was his attitude to the flight attendant
      As far as i know the term is flight attendant not baggage handler, by his own admission she was a slight female and the person having issues with his bag was a male. I will bypass the part where a female should be lifting a heavy bag for a man, even if the attendant were male it’s not really their job.
      What amazes me is why he doesn’t see fit to question a) why the man was allowed to board with such a big bag and b) why it wasn’t this mans fault for not being able to stow the bag.
      So he has already shown that he has no regard for her, despite it not being her bag or her job to stow the bag. Asking for her name when any complaint would be able to identify her anyway, she was the only person working that flight, is simply a power play. It reinforces his dominance over her, sadly this time she had the last laugh.

      • Anonymous
        Anonymous says:

        Wow. If you had ever met Matt you would know that he is a gentle human being. I confess that I have not heard her side of the story however…his bag WAS in the overhead and it is actually her job to be gracious and even handle people that are difficult. Perhaps she had a bad morning and found it difficult to do her job.

      • Jim
        Jim says:

        “It reinforces his dominance over her”
        Are you one of those radical feminists by any chance. Otherwise that sentence makes no sense to me.

        • depicus
          depicus says:

          No 🙂 ask yourself how this situation would have gone down if this was the pilot not the flight attendant. Or ask yourself what would have happened if there were turbulence and the bag had flown out and hit somebody.

  2. Shane Nokes
    Shane Nokes says:

    Folks ignore depicus, he’s being a troll for some reason…and please don’t feed the troll.
    We always have the right to ask someone for a way to identify them in the case of bad customer service. Whether it’s an agent ID number, a name, or something else.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for a name in order to provide feedback, be it positive or negative.

    • depicus
      depicus says:

      I’ll ignore the troll argument as it really doesn’t assist any of us in a coherent argument.
      Yes he has the “right” to ask for her name and I don’t doubt he is usually a very pleasant person but in this situation he has upset this lady. She didn’t know he was a nice person, she may have considered him a bit of an ass based on her initial encounter and she therefore made the call that she might not be able to deal with him during the flight. She made a split second decision based on the facts available to her. This is what she saw not the Mr. Nice Guy would not hurt a fly most people know. Was she right ? Well if you leave the decision up to her how can you say she was wrong.

      • Jim
        Jim says:

        So having the “suspicion” that he “might” be an ass to deal with is grounds for kicking a customer out of the flight? Where’s the proof that he WOULD have caused trouble? Asking someone’s name is nowhere near proof enough for such drastic measures.
        Personally, I think he could’ve been smarter with the incident. I would’ve asked her name towards the end of the flight, and reprimanded for her rudeness when it was too late for her to do anything to do about it. And reported her to the authorities of course.

        • depicus
          depicus says:

          Yes. It’s a subjective test, does the flight attend feel the passenger would be…. and remember there is nothing in the constitution that gives you a right to fly in the same way McDonalds don’t have to serve you. We may not like it but until we own our own airline we play by other peoples rules.
          Had she thrown him off for being black or a dwarf then yes get pissed but thankfully we are yet to discriminate on the grounds of being a bit of a dick head.

          • Jim
            Jim says:

            Well, my point is there was no PROOF of him being a dickhead. On the contrary, IF you are to believe the author’s version, there’s every reason to believe the flight attendant was being unnecessarily rude. Just like the FA has a right to be “upset” by him, the author had every reason to be upset by her behavior.
            You seem to be giving the FA all the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the author is a “dickhead”. I’m going to do the same, and assume the FA is the crazy “bitch” here. How does that sound?

          • depicus
            depicus says:

            Sounds fair. And that may well have been the case, we will never know. I still think his attitude may not be as exemplary and having done similar on a plane myself at the time you feel it’s the FA’s fault but thinking back now it was my arrogance and stupidity that was the root cause. Maybe in a few weeks time he will reflect, maybe she will – who knows.

  3. alec
    alec says:

    That’s a real conundrum. I have the same problem at times. Ideally the source of the issue should be identified and dealt with. The problem is you can chase that forever. ‘The attendant has an abusive bf’ ‘the bf has emotional issues from childhood’ etc etc. I think the real issue here is the flight attendants failure to communicate and her misreading of what was happening.
    I’d like to think if they’d have been able to discuss and reason for 5 minutes Matt would have been allowed to stay on the flight. Sadly due to the fast moving pace of society people feel they must make hasty decisions.
    The only way I can disappate my rage when this happens to me is to think about how this miscommunication went so badly and then I attempt to be more mindful myself in future(so should I ever be the flight attendant I choose to understand rather than overreact!)

  4. Chester White
    Chester White says:

    Over on Flyertalk.com there are dozens if not hundreds of stories about cr@p service on UA, especially in the last couple years. It is not getting better. Only way to fight is not to fly them. Just don’t.

  5. azure
    azure says:

    depicus made a valid comment, not troll like at all.
    Jim said: “Are you one of those radical feminists by any chance. Otherwise that sentence makes no sense to me.” <– this is an argumentative troll like response to something that unless you have grown up in the United States as a female, you probably cannot comprehend.
    I am a woman. I am not a radical feminist. I have experienced first hand men who try to exert their dominance over me. There is the real dominance, such as a boss or policeman has over you for instance. Then there is the implied dominance. This is the one that probably set off the flight attendant. Now I am a very rational and logical person so I probably would not have reacted as the attendant in this story did. What you did by asking for her name in the heat of the moment of her dealing with a difficult person was to link yourself to him in her mind. An airplane is a closed environment.There was an entire flight for you to find out her name. You probably could have found it out covertly without confronting her.
    But no, you wanted her to know you were unhappy with the situation. You wanted her to understand that you were the passenger and she was the attendant. You are the customer and she is the clerk. You were unhappy with the way she was treating someone you did not even know and you wanted her to know it. This is what is meant by reinforcing your dominance over her. That you are a man is just icing on the cupcake.

    • Jim
      Jim says:

      Well, the fact is he WAS unhappy with her. He had every right to be unhappy with her if he felt she was being rude. And he had every right to let her know that he wasn’t happy with the way she was dealing with his fellow passengers. It’s not like he ABUSED her or made any insulting remarks.
      Only radical feminists could turn this into a gender issue.

    • Jim
      Jim says:

      By the way, what you’ve experienced first hand from men in your life has no place in this discussion. I have also experienced some vile and poisonous women in my life. But that doesn’t mean I have to bring that into every argument where one party is male and the other is female.

  6. Mike Jacoubowsky
    Mike Jacoubowsky says:

    “That’s the rub of a situation like this: it feels entirely lose-lose.”
    That’s a choice, not the only outcome. The author makes his living studying how people interact with the world; his background is in behavioral psychology. Yes, I’d be puzzled too, trying to figure out what got me kicked off the plane, but I’d also be thinking this is one more interesting thing to figure out. The FA is part of the world; how do you connect with her (or people like her)? Is it a “5am” problem, as in nobody’s thinking clearly and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet? Is it that much different than dealing with a frustrated BING user whose day is starting off badly? –Mike–

  7. None
    None says:

    Message I received from all this is to ask for her name after the flight arrives at destination in the future.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I think u should worry about yourself if the person dealing directly with her wanted to complain that’s up to them and as someone stated you don’t need a name based on the way you write you come off has having attitude or I could see u making smart ass jokes thinking your funny

  9. neopong
    neopong says:

    Hmm. I can only assume the flight attendent was having a rough day and it was seeping into her work environment. The airlines really do over work them.Most people do not realize that it is not the flight attendants job to help you put your stuff in the over head. But most do it because a lot of us have trouble with it. lol I personally think the woman should not have acted that way towards the man she was originally having trouble with. By treating the man that way she was being unprofessional. I personally think the man who ask for her name did no wrong in doing so. By asking her name it should have reminded her of her position and hopefully made her change her rude behavior. By kicking off the two men and acting rude she became the mean person in this situation. If she would have stayed professional and was patient with the man then the story would have changed in her favor. And if she would have realize that the man was going to a funeral maybe her demeanor would have been a bit nicer.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Just saw this from Twitter @mattallaert, a Microsoft employee. Wow. Just got removed from @united flight because I asked flight attendant's name (because she was rude to other customer). And he had to switched to Alaska Air to OAK and drive to SF… http://mattwallaert.com/whatever…tendants-name/ […]

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