So Sunday my wife and I were returning from our anniversary trip to New York. Things started badly — first leg of the flight home diverted to Pittsburgh because of mechanical problems, thrust onto a flight to Philly without (initially) enough room for us, split apart on that flight, running across the Philly airport to make replacement flight to LA because Philly flight sat on tarmac waiting for a gate for half an hour, downgraded (from nice seats purchased with miles) and split apart into middle seats for long flight home to LA, bags inexplicably sent to Dallas, and so forth.
Then came the ugly part.
I was peacefully watching downloaded Netflix when I heard a commotion that sounded like someone had turned on a movie on high volume. I turned my head and saw that one row behind me and across, a dude was flipping out. This man — let's call him the Dude — was probably in his 30s, medium height, wiry and muscular, Anglo or possibly Latino, short-cropped hair, sleeveless shirt, with extensive forearm, hand, and what appeared to be facial tattoos. He was yelling — screaming would not be exaggerating, at one point. He seemed to be yelling at the people in the row directly in front of him – a middle-aged professional-looking man, a modestly dressed woman the same age, and a smallish boy of perhaps 11 or 12, all of whom appeared to be Indian or Pakistani.
Over the course of the first few minutes, he shouted "SHUT THE FUCK UP" and "I'M TRYING TO SLEEP" and "I'M A PROFESSIONAL FIGHTER" and "I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU" and "I WILL CHOKE YOU OUT" and "DO YOU WANT TO START SOMETHING" "YOU FUCKING RAGHEADS" and "YOU FUCKING RAGHEADS KEEP TALKING" and so on to that effect. Flight attendants approached and tried to talk to him and he responded with more shouted obscenities and repeated invocations of his status as a "professional fighter" and his willingness to choke and/or kill people and more calling the family in front of him "ragheads." As people craned their heads to see what was going on, he began to shout at them, yelling "FUCK YOU STOP LOOKING AT ME" and "STOP LOOKING AT ME FAGGOT I WILL KILL YOU" and so forth.
A few larger male passengers got out of their seats and started to move towards the guy. Tension ratcheted up. The family looked pretty terrified. Eventually the flight attendants moved the two people sitting next to the guy out of his row. One of the male passengers approached the Dude. I thought — incorrectly, as it turned out — that the passenger (let's call him Calm Man) was an air marshal or a cop; he had that air about him and way of moving and standing and talking. Calm Man was buff and looked ready to take down the Dude. A tough-looking guy in the aisle ahead of me switched seats with my wife and the man next to her and was sitting on the aisle, looking back and tense and ready for action. At this point, I was thinking that a quick landing at a nearby airport was likely. We were somewhere over the Midwest at this point.
Then Calm Man worked it out, at least temporarily.
He used deescalation tactics to bring Dude back from the brink. He spoke in measured tone as Dude yelled, offered him a drink, asked about his flight, and interacted with him in a firm but non-confrontational way. Dude continued yelling threats and obscenities at first — including threatening nearby people for looking at him — but gradually his outbursts got less noisy and less dramatic, and he subsided. Calm Man remained standing in the aisle, attentive to Dude but not in his space, looking at him but not mad-dogging him, engaging him in level tones. Eventually flight attendants came back and told Dude that they had arranged a quiet seat for him in the back and would he like to go. He did, muttering obscenities and threats. Calm Man retook his seat.
All was quiet until we touched down, when Dude started shouting again from the rear of the plane, repeating that he was a PROFESSIONAL FIGHTER and would FUCKING KILL YOU and demanding DON'T YOU CALL ME MOTHERFUCKER I WILL MURDER YOU, which honestly sounds like the worst Blondie cover ever. Everyone was standing to get their bags and get off the plan and there was a nervous press towards the front, away from him. We slowly exited the plane over the course of 10 minutes or so.
I was very surprised that by the time I got off — I was seated maybe 3/4 of the way back — there were still no cops or security folks on the plane or even waiting outside the plane. No law enforcement or security was visible. I asked the head flight attendant and the captain if someone was taking statements and they said they didn't know. Cops eventually showed up — I know because about half an hour later in the baggage claim area, as we fruitlessly sought our bags, I heard someone mention giving a statement. But I also saw the family that had been harassed standing in the baggage area. Nobody had escorted them off for their safety — despite the dude making death threats at them — nobody was watching over them in baggage claim, and nobody had tried to take their statement, or even (apparently) tried to. That was rather shocking. I approached the dad, told him I was sorry that had happened to him and his family, and gave him my contact information in case he needed a witness.
Overall, I was unimpressed with American Airline's response to an out-of-control passenger. It was Calm Man — who, it turned out, was not an air marshal or cop, but just a guy with martial arts experience — who resolved the situation effectively. The flight attendants were ineffectual. The solution of moving the guy — make possible only by effective deescalation tactics by Calm Man — only resulted in an angry threatening outburst by Dude after landing. In handling interference with a flight crew cases when I was a fed, it seemed that cops or security would generally board the plane and take the offender out immediately upon landing, and be there in order to identify witnesses and get their statements or contact information. I can see how you might make a tactical choice not to send cops onto the airplane first out of fear that it would escalate the situation, but there were no visible cops or security there making any tactical decisions. There were just the passengers and attendants and Dude — who by that point was separated from Calm Man by a sea of passengers trying to disembark. If Dude had gone violent at that point, it's not clear what would have happened.
Contrast this level of care and security with, for example, how the airline handles reports of a swarthy dude doing math. The different approach appears arbitrary and capricious to me.
This could be a tailor-made look-at-Trump's-America clickbait story, but I don't take it that way — Dude sounded disturbed rather than emboldened-by-the-times. I think it's more a story about the inconsistent nature of airline responses to emergent situations. I'm no cop and do not have tactical training, but I struggle to understand why American Airlines did not have law enforcement there ready for the plane, and why it did not identify people who could give statements. It's also a story about how effective different approaches can be to disturbed and/or agitated people, and about how situations can be deescalated. Calm Man is the hero of the story; he was impressive as hell.
Seriously horrifying update: I spoke with a reliable source who related something that I missed, apparently when I was in the bathroom: about half an hour after Dude's initial eruption, an American Airlines flight attendant abruptly and without warning escorted him back to interact with the family again. Dude spoke to the child — who was visibly very upset. Dude led with mentioning again that he was a professional fighter before apologizing and taking the child's hand to shake it. Think that over: a guy screamed death threats and racial insults at a family trapped on a flight, and an American Airlines flight attendant escorted him to interact with the family again. Good God. That's indescribably stupid and unprofessional.
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