When an In-Flight Dispute Turns Into an FBI Interview

Murad Sezer / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I wrote about some of the reasons airlines can get away with bad customer service. One extreme example came earlier this month, when a passenger was seriously injured while being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight—but overall, the amount of control airlines have over their customers is the envy of other industries, the marketing expert Joseph Turow told me:

“Irrespective of any individual fare, they have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is,” he said. “And because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”

Business travelers, who are less likely than leisure travelers to comparison-shop for airfare, reap the rewards of pricey, company-sponsored travel in the form of miles. They’re pampered, while passengers in the back, who are more likely to have simply searched for the best deal, are left without many frills.

A reader emailed over the weekend to share her own harrowing experience with a major airline in the ’90s, which quickly escalated from a routine complaint to an emergency landing and a round of questioning with the FBI:

I and my then-boyfriend were flying to Portland from NYC. His father, an executive with loads of mileage to spend, got my BF a business ticket and me a coach ticket for some reason. We were chatting at my BF’s seat, thinking it should be okay until the departure. A flight attendant approached us and as soon as he knew that I was a coach customer, he started to get very mean and raise his voice at me—even though we explained I was going back to my assigned spot before takeoff.

We decided my BF would come to my seat later to watch a film together after a meal. When I was going to enter the business section to pick him up, the same flight attendant stopped me, saying my BF was asleep and I couldn’t get in the business area since I didn’t have a business ticket. He even said I shouldn’t bother my BF and shut a curtain in my face.

So, I complained about this flight attendant’s rude attitude, but nobody was decent and I started to cry. My BF came and he also told them that the flight attendant was very mean to me.

All of a sudden, an announcement was made to be seated, so we went back to our seats. Later I would learn that the captain decided to make an emergency stop to kick us out. We were handcuffed.

We had to talk with an FBI agent. While waiting for the federal interview, my BF and I were separated. I told the two male officers who were watching me that I needed to use a bathroom, and one of them inspected me—I was fully clothed but it was seriously degrading and traumatic. In the meantime, my BF told me that when he asked for a cigarette break, they just uncuffed him and let him smoke outside.

My BF’s father made some phone calls to the airline, and we learned that the airline claimed we had started a fight. That claim wasn’t accepted by the authorities, but we were charged for violating the federal regulation that says passengers have to be seated when the airline tells them so. I FedExed a letter denying the charge, but it was ignored and we were fined, although we never paid.

It was a real nightmare. On the way back from Portland, we had to take the same airline because that’s what my BF’s father had got us. The same crew was working and when we were getting off in NY, a female crew member called me “dork.”  

My BF told me that mean attendant guy was totally nice to him. Back then I was too naive to think the crew was just plain arrogant and mean, and I wondered if that flight attendant guy liked my BF and just hated me because I was his partner. Now I think that the crew and the airline were racially biased: My BF was a tall, blond, handsome, WASP-looking man and I was an Asian woman.

Thanks for reading.  It still makes me nervous after all these years …

Have you got an airline story that still makes you shudder? Send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.