Cabin crews have the unenviable job of trying to parse when impolite behavior becomes potentially dangerous.

Ron Barrett • New York Times,

Could your behavior get you booted off a plane?

  • New York Times
  • July 27, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Last month, a group of high school students and their chaperons were ordered off a flight to Atlanta for refusing to sit down and turn off their cellphones. In May, six friends were removed from a flight to Las Vegas, allegedly for talking loudly.

Every few weeks we seem to hear about passengers being escorted off planes for the sorts of infractions that once only sent you to the principal’s office. Is this normal? Might you someday find yourself being taken off a plane for being uncooperative, kicking a seat back or caviling with a flight attendant (all real reasons that you can be removed)?

The number of passengers classified as “unruly” can’t be accurately quantified. The Federal Aviation Administration tracks only the incidents that crew members choose to report. And its database does not include security violations (the Transportation Security Administration handles those). That said, the number of unruly passengers reported to the FAA since 1995, the earliest date in the online database, appears to be at an all-time low. There were 129 such passengers in 2012, down from 140 in 2011.

And then there’s the data from the International Air Transport Association. The trade group said its most recent available figures show that reported instances of unruliness increased about 29 percent between 2009 and 2010 (the FAA’s figures show a decline in that period). Whatever the numbers, the association and flight attendants say it is a continuing problem.

“Which is why we were so outraged with the thought of knives coming back onboard,” said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, referring to the TSA decision, since rescinded, to allow small knives in cabins.

“The plane in my view is just a microcosm of where we’re at in society today,” Shook said.

Airlines’ broad language

Yet consumer advocates and passengers who have been ordered off planes for seemingly petty infractions think some flight attendants abuse their power and that the broad language airlines use to define unruly behavior makes it difficult for passengers to know how to behave.

No one wants surly passengers on a flight. And there is no telling how many terrible situations have been avoided because perceptive flight attendants have had passengers removed from planes. But consumer advocates say that the broad and vague language that airlines use to define unruly behavior, found in their Contract of Carriage, is unfair to passengers because it is unclear what can get them tossed off a plane.

“We have heard of passengers being told to get off a plane because of a ‘look’ or being too ‘anxious’ or having too ‘tense a tone’ when they answer a flight attendant,” said Kate Hanni, the founder of, the largest nonprofit airline consumer group in the country.

Hanni said it has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the FAA to create a set of rules or legal standards so that passengers know precisely which behaviors to avoid. Now a flight attendant can remove a passenger for not obeying instructions or if a passenger presents a risk. “But ‘risk’ is completely subjective,” she said, “and when you have flight attendants and crews from different backgrounds and cultures you get a different set of rules that no one knows on every flight.”

One way to educate yourself is to Google the name of your airline and “Contract of Carriage.” The contract will include a section listing the reasons the airline may refuse to transport you, or remove you from your flight. The “conditions of carriage” for American Airlines, for instance, explain that the airline can remove you for refusing to obey instructions from any flight crew member but also for things like having “an offensive odor not caused by a disability or illness” or being “clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.”

Hanni advises travelers always to follow flight attendants’ instructions. If you believe you have been removed from a flight unfairly, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s consumer protection division at You can also call Flyers Rights at 1-877-359-3776 for help with the complaint process.

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