Commentary: The authority of flight crews

As often as I fly, I was surprised to hear a subtle difference in the pre-flight announcement during my most recent trip. As it turns out, the small difference I heard could be pretty important.

I’m a writer; I’m attuned to words. So it caught my attention when the pre-flight announcement during my most recent trip on American Airlines (NYSE:AMR) included the mostly familiar phrase that “FAA regulations require compliance with crewmember instructions,” but then was followed with words less familiar: “... about seatbelts and smoking.”

My curiosity piqued, I set about digging into the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) to learn what I could.

There, I found references to the authority vested in flight crews under Parts 121 and 125, the parts that apply to most commercial airline operations. While federal regulations do indeed require compliance with placards and flight crew instructions, the regulations appeared only to require compliance with certain kinds of safety instructions, as American Airlines’ spokesperson Matt Miller confirmed in an e-mail.

“The [public address] announcement is supported by [14 CFR §] 121.317 (k) which states, each passenger shall comply with instructions given him or her by a crewmember regarding compliance with paragraphs (f), (g), (h) and (i) of this section,” Miller said, noting that “Section (f), (g), (h), and (i) all pertain to the use of seatbelts and prohibition of smoking."

In short, that means signs, placards and crew instructions related to smoking prohibitions and use of seatbelts must be obeyed under penalty of law. In addition, it is illegal to assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties. These restrictions are also restated in 14 CFR § 125.327, which pertain to Part 125 operations.

So, what does this mean?

In short, it means flight crews do not have absolute authority over everyone and everything on their aircraft. It might also mean that flight crews’ recent actions ranging from kicking off college football player Deshon Marman, pop musician Billie Joe Armstrong, and others who have refused to pull up their sagging pants to ejecting a blogger who (gasp!) took a picture inside the aircraft might have been on very shaky legal ground indeed.

However – and this is huge – intimidation or interference with a crewmember is a very nebulous concept and can, in large part, depend on the mood or mindset of the crewmember making the claim.

For example, is flirting with that cute gal or guy in the flight attendant’s uniform simply flirting, or could it be construed as intimidation? Does chatting up the F/A and delaying beverage service to other passengers constitute “interfer[ing] with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties”?

I believe it could. Here’s why.

In today’s hypersensitive environment, a flight attendant or other crewmember need only be concerned for the safety of the flight to push the panic button. The degree of their concern, or whether their concern was valid, seems not to matter much.

Granted, if a passenger becomes belligerent or abusive when asked to do something – whether the flight crew asked him to pull up his pants or stop taking pictures –  the attitude has become the issue, not the action, and getting the person off the plane might be the right thing to do.

But there are other scenarios to consider.

Let’s suppose an airline has an F/A who is intimated by anyone who dresses in the ‘gangsta’ style. Is the fact that he or she feels intimidated a genuine cause for concern and a reason to throw a passenger off the plane? That’s an important question to answer correctly.

Obviously, the responsibility for a safe flight falls to the flight crew, but that doesn’t mean they’re always right. And the trouble is, there’s no unbiased third party to review their actions after situations like these have occurred to determine who was right. So the presumption goes to the airline, and it will likely continue that way until an airline wrongly ejects someone with the will and deep enough pockets to take the carrier to court.

THAT will be interesting.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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