Civility Under the Seat At American Airlines

The coronavirus pandemic has caused, along with millions of deaths, widespread trauma, and the fraying of nerves all around. Not only medical workers on the front lines in hospitals, but people in various walks of life, have been under terrific stress; worrying about their own and their families’ health, their financial situation, their children’s education, and more.

Airline crews are among the most affected. They have had to suffer with travel bans, flight cancellations, vaccine issues, and unruly passengers. Being a flight attendant these days has become something akin to being a police officer at 30,000 feet, which is not the job they signed up for.

But none of that is an excuse for what happened on American Airlines flight 322 from Miami to New York last August.

According to media reports, Roberto and Elana Birman, a Jewish couple in their 70s, were ordered off the plane when they refused to comply with a flight attendant’s command to place a bag on the floor. The bag contained Mr. Birman’s siddur and tallis.

When the flight attendant, during a check of the overhead bins, found the article, she asked, “Whose is this?” When Mr. Birman said it was his, the flight attendant tossed it into his lap and ordered him to place it under his seat.

“It’s a religious item,” he said. “It cannot go under the seat.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the flight attendant allegedly retorted.

“She was screaming at me and pointing her finger,” Birman said.

The pilot came over, and then, without discussing the matter with the Birmans, ordered them escorted off the plane.

Adding to the humiliation was severe inconvenience. “They were left without Roberto’s diabetes medications, which were in the checked luggage, got no help from the airline for securing food or a place to stay that night, and were forced to take a taxi to a friend’s home as a hurricane swept in,” according to the New York Post report.

Saying that they were “humiliated” during the incident, they are suing American Airlines for unspecified damages

A company spokesman said the airline is reviewing the lawsuit.

The couple, who came to the U.S. in 1985 from Argentina, where they said they encountered frequent antisemitism, apparently perceived the flight attendant’s conduct as anti-Jewish.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America,” said Roberto.

Their lawyer, Brad Gerstman, characterized the incident as a manifestation of “prejudice.”

However, from the details reported, it’s not so clear. No antisemitic slur was made. Whether it was specifically antisemitic, or anti-religious in general (after hearing that it was a religious article), or just the irrational outburst of an overloaded flight attendant unable to program anything but full and immediate compliance, is not clear.

What is clear, though, is that the matter was badly bungled. The “problem,” if there was one, might have been solved simply by squeezing the bag in between other items overhead, or asking Mr. Birman to hold it on his lap. It’s also not unheard of that flight personnel will offer to stow carry-on items in their own spaces as a courtesy, rather than necessitate a special trip back to check-in or ejecting the passenger.

The appalling attitude of the crew precluded that. Screaming and finger-pointing somehow don’t facilitate rational solutions.

We would have assumed that this was a rare incident, not necessarily reflecting on American Airlines. But the captain’s decision to eject the Birmans indicates that it wasn’t only the flight attendant who was at fault.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report on airline complaints covering 2019 ranked American Airlines at the top of the list, with 2,553 complaints. Of those, 299 related to baggage handling, 24 to discrimination. Even allowing for passenger volume (complaints per 100,000 passengers), AA came in third place, after Spirit and Frontier Airlines.

It would be nice to think that this unfortunate incident was not caused by antisemitism, but merely the result of a compliance-obsessive mentality. But given the current climate, in which so much blatant antisemitism has been flourishing, there is reason to believe that the Birmans are right, and that’s what was behind the abusive treatment.

The airline industry in America has a distinguished history, having pioneered in commercial flight with entrepreneurial verve, high safety standards, efficiency and courtesy. It can overcome the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and go on to a successful future, but only if it can overcome a disturbing tendency to treat passengers with insensitivity and contempt…or antisemitism.