Time for Answers From the Airlines

When a greatly respected Rosh Yeshivah and his wife were forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight last week in what they stress was a completely baseless and unsubstantiated accusation, it was only the latest in a series of disturbing occurrences involving flight crews.

The couple, who are in their mid-70s, had boarded a flight at Newark Airport headed to Amsterdam, from which they had planned to continue to Eretz Yisrael for the wedding of a grandson. Upon entering the cabin, the Rebbetzin approached the cabin manager, known as a “purser,” to ask if she could store her sheitel box in an onboard closet, as she had done on many other flights. The request was denied by the purser, whose first name was “Juan.” He replied that there was no room and that the item had to be placed in the overhead bin.

About 20 minutes before the scheduled takeoff time, the purser approached the Rebbetzin and asked that she stow away a different carry-on item in the overhead compartment. When she asked for a moment to remove a few pieces of reading material, the purser abruptly and astonishingly declared: “I’m going to get you off this flight.”

The couple were shaken. But after they spoke with a different, polite crew manager who was very apologetic for the purser’s behavior, they assumed that the threat was not one to be taken very seriously.

Unbeknownst to them, as they were discussing the matter with the second purser, the first one actually went to the captain and requested that he call the police to remove the couple from the plane. Moments later, several police officers came aboard, accompanied by Juan, who asserted that the Rebbetzin had been “nasty,” and that he was concerned she would be disruptive during the flight. The Rosh Yeshivah and his wife — who were the only visibly Orthodox passengers on the plane — were escorted off the aircraft.

This incident came only weeks after an Orthodox couple, along with their 19-month-old child, returning to Detroit from Miami, were ordered off their American Airlines flight, leaving them stranded in Florida overnight. In that case, the flight crew claimed that “some people complained” that the couple had a “body odor,” a notion that the pair firmly denies.

That incident came on the heels of an even more egregious case last month, when yet a third Orthodox family — a young couple with three daughters under the age of three — were escorted by police off a Spirit Airlines flight after it landed in Ft. Lauderdale. The couple told of being harassed by a flight attendant who was overheard referring to them as “those retarded Jews.”

These incidents occurred less than two years after Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor, was injured and had to be hospitalized after Chicago aviation police dragged him from the United Airlines plane to make space for four crew members on a flight from the city’s O’Hare International Airport to Louisville, Kentucky.

That incident sparked international outrage, and United later reached a settlement with Dao for an undisclosed sum.

To be fair, the FAA reports that 43,000 flights — over two and a half million passengers — pass through U.S. airports every day. Nearly all these flights are uneventful. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 Americans who work as flight attendants, and most of them act in a courteous and professional way.

At the same time, the hard questions must be asked — and answers must be sought from the airlines —about the procedures currently in place.

There is no doubt that crew members of an airline, especially the flight attendants, have a challenging and exhausting job. Their duties include doing all they can to keep passengers not only comfortable but also safe, and they sometimes have to deal with unruly and even intoxicated passengers. At the same time, anti-Semitism — or any bias — must never be tolerated. The notion that a captain can unilaterally have police take passengers off a plane based solely on the unsubstantiated claim of a purser, without giving the passengers and witnesses the ability to present their side of the story, is outrageous and frightening.

Furthermore, while it is understandable that the airlines feel an obligation to defend their employees, it is imperative that the airlines do not allow this professional relationship to obscure their obligation to their customers. Airlines must set up a fair and responsible system whereby grievances can be heard and dealt with in a timely matter.

This is not only a question of customer service, it is a matter of civil rights.