The latest report from the American Airlines “laptop” incident on a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii has me all sorts of confused. According to the FBI report on the incident, as reported by AP, the suspect boarded with no bags, just a laptop, cell phone, charger and a few items in his pockets. That is mildly strange but not really illegal. The part where the guy went through an emergency exit door at LAX to the ramp while “looking for food” according to Airport police spokesman Rob Pedregon. Police were also concerned that the suspect might be drunk but apparently not drunk enough to hold. So the police took away his boarding pass and walked him outside security. At that point the guy got another boarding pass, went back through security and boarded the aircraft in a wheelchair, possibly to mask the fact that he was under the influence of alcohol.
Once on board he took a seat in first class despite holding a coach ticket and only after several requests moved to a seat in the back. Later during the flight he approached the front of the plane with his laptop and the crew decided it might be a bomb and took precautions to that effect, including arranging a fighter jet escort for the duration of the trip and surrounding the laptop with the crew bags, just in case. Ultimately a urine test indicated the presence of Benzodiazepines, a class of barbiturates, in his system. Historically such drugs have been used to treat insomnia or anxiety – the sort of thing one might take for a long flight – but they appear to be slightly out of vogue these days, at least for sleep aid, due to side effects.
So, yeah, lots of strange behavior and problems along the way, red flags that probably should’ve prevented the guy from ever getting on the plane. Among them is section 121.575(c) of FAR Part 121, the rules that govern commercial airlines in the United States:
(c) No certificate holder may allow any person to board any of its aircraft if that person appears to be intoxicated.
The guy used a wheelchair to board the flight so that may have hid things, but the flight attendants reportedly escorted him from the door on to the plane, where he took the wrong seat and refused several requests to move. That’s probably where I’d draw the line as a crewmember. And I mostly say that having done so as a passenger in the past. I’ve been on a plane where a guy was pretty obviously drunk and unable or unwilling to take the correct seat, harassing other passengers along the way. He was in no condition to fly and I had no problems telling the FAs such as they hadn’t noticed because they hadn’t interacted with the guy. In this case the Gate Agent and the Flight Attendants both interacted with the suspect and I have to think they should’ve been concerned about the strange behavior. It remains to be seen if the FAA will choose to fine AA for the violation.
I’ve boarded a plane drunk before. I’ve become drunk on a plane before. Arguably the crews involved in those cases violated 121.575(c) or (b)(1) when I did so. But I’d like to think I did it in a manner that did not raise other red flags, such as ignoring crew member instructions by taking the wrong seat. Maybe it was just an honest mistake that the crew had to ask him several times to move and he mostly ignored them. Or maybe fear of being the next crewmember “caught” on a cell phone camera got in the way of dealing with a guy who had no business on board.
And he’s not the only one this week. Another guy on a United flight from Shanghai to Newark reportedly refused to allow other passengers into “his” row during boarding, apparently mad about not getting an upgrade. That ultimately resulted in every passenger being removed from the plane so that the schmuck could be dealt with and a multi-hour delay for the flight.
The full offloading of the plane is a new procedure put in place as a result of the Dr. Dao incident, essentially creating a loophole in the policies such that the police are not offloading a properly boarded passenger but a trespasser because no one is supposed to be on board.
It is all sort of stupid and, far too often, because some people are idiots or assholes or on drugs. And somewhere along the way dealing with it became an impossible minefield for everyone involved to navigate.
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