The Power Of The Petty Over Privilege

Well, I might take a plane, I might take a train,
But if I have to walk I’m going just the same…

–Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, 1952

There is no right to fly from one place to another. Not even if it’s a great distance away. Not even if it’s across a great ocean. After all, you can drive, take a train, take a boat, or walk. It’s true, of course. It’s also insane nonsense, which means that it’s a rationale that would only appeal to a government whose purpose is to regulate. It’s not that travel isn’t a right. It is. It’s that there is no right to any particular mode of travel. Like flying.

Not only has this rationale given us the Transportation Safety Administration’s ability to scan, poke, prod and occasionally insert digits into orifices, and a list of people who are not allowed on any plane, but the more pedestrian limitation of giving any member of a flight crew the authority to toss a person off a plane. At will. For any reason. Or no reason. Or no good reason.

The lawyer, Robert B. Abtahi, the vice chairman of the Dallas Plan Commission, the official body that makes planning and zoning recommendations to the City Council, said he was trying to board Virgin America Flight 885 to Dallas before its scheduled departure at 3:50 p.m., when he was told that he would not be allowed onto the plane.

Abtahi had a ticket. He paid the fare. He was there on time and, presumably, removed his shoes upon command. So what could have been the cause for his being denied boarding?

Mr. Abtahi, who goes by “Bobby,” said the reason he was given was that the captain and crew did not feel comfortable with him on the flight.

Ah, Bobby. That was a critical bit of background. Bobby made “the captain and crew” feel uncomfortable.  Was he somehow perceived to be a threat to the lives of other fliers?

“I have PreCheck and Global Entry and I’m not acting crazy; I haven’t been drinking. I’m just standing.”

Of course, he was standing there being all Iranian, but was this ethnic profiling? Had that been the case, it would have been awful, but at least comprehensible in its incredibly stupid way. However, the Virgin Atlantic crew can’t even take comfort from sensible ethnic hatred.

Mr. Abtahi said that the incident, reported online on Monday evening by The Dallas Morning News, happened in one of the airport’s revolving doors when a woman got behind him in the same stall. In response to a reporter’s inquiry, he wrote on Twitter that they “both fumbled to get in,” and he “didn’t know she was crew.”

Mr. Abtahi said he did not think anything of the encounter until a gate agent told him he had cut someone off.

Or as more succinctly put by the Dallas Morning News, in response to why he was denied boarding, the gate agent explained:

When she returned, she told him he wouldn’t be allowed on the flight because he had walked in front of a flight attendant walking in the terminal doors, Abtahi said.

“She said I cut in front of a flight attendant on my way inside the airport and that they didn’t feel comfortable with me on the flight,” he said via text message.

“Bobby” Abtahi was able to get on another flight and return to Dallas. Virgin Atlantic apologized for the “misunderstanding,” offered him a couple free flights which Bobby gave away to a good cause, though the thought had crossed his mind that his ethnicity might have been a contributing factor.

Abtahi, an Iranian-American, said he didn’t know whether race played a role in the airline’s decision.

“I really truly hope not but the thought did cross my mind,” he wrote in a text. “I haven’t shaved in five days and my hair is a mess. I’ve been on a beach.”

But the airline insisted it had nothing to do with his Iranianness.

[Virgin Atlantic spokesman David] Arnold, responding to a subsequent email asking whether Mr. Abtahi had been profiled based on his looks, his name or his background, said he had not.

Instead, the airline relied on the claim that this was just a big, silly misunderstanding. Except, this really isn’t about whether it’s cool with Bobby to have been denied boarding.  It’s wonderful that Bobby was as good natured about the incident as he was, accepting the apology and telling the world to chill out.


The fact that Bobby was willing to shrug it off fails to address the scope of the arbitrary and capricious authority given pretty much any airline employee to indulge any feeling of discomfort, or just screw with people if they’re so inclined, and deny them the ability to fly.

In this instance, the claim that there was some perceived rudeness at the door to an airport terminal was sufficient to deny a passenger the right to fly.  But then, if airline employees feel that they have the authority to pay someone back for a “fumbling” entrance to the terminal, is there any line that can’t be crossed?

What if the stew didn’t like the way a cashier at the Gap was checking out her blue jeans, then recognized the person at her gate a week later?  “This dude makes me uncomfortable,” she tells the captain, and boom, he’s out of there.  The government has handed unfettered authority under the guise of safeguarding us from terrorists to pretty much anyone in an airline’s employ.

While the airline may have a say in how their employees exercise their discretion, there is no legal limitation on the pettiness with which they wield this power.  And while stews may be much better trained today than in the “fly me” days of yore, they are not selected for the position based on their sound attitude toward the harm they do other people’s lives when they get tinges of discomfort.

What happened to Bobby Abtahi could just as easily happen to any traveler. It’s not necessary that they suffer some egregious consequence, though they certainly could.  But without legal limits, together with significant consequences for failure to abide by those limits, on the exercise of discretion by any person whose personal feelings of discomfort or annoyance, the impairment, is not only wrong, but potentially devastating.  And aside from the facile “misunderstanding” (as in she misunderstood that this would go viral and embarrass the airline), there is no line an airline employee cannot legally cross.

But then, it’s not like anyone has a right to fly.  Bobby could have just walked home.


5 thoughts on “The Power Of The Petty Over Privilege

  1. Charles Platt

    Is it not true that the power of a captain and his crew on an airplane dates back to the power of a captain on his ship? It certainly predates 9/11. There was a flight in 1970 where I was stretched out sleeping across four empty seats on a 747, and a gentleman who had a seat further back in the aircraft felt he should have the right to use one of my seats for himself, so he could get a better view of the movie. I said “no,” because it wasn’t his seat, and it wasn’t my seat–it was unallocated, so, first-come, first-serve. My polite refusal ended up with the captain rapping me on the head with his knuckles and promising to have the police waiting for me at Heathrow if I did not obey his command to surrender a seat. On an aircraft over the Atlantic, the captain’s power seems absolute.

      1. John Barleycorn

        It’s really more of a sphere.

        But at least the anarchists at Cambridge, founded in the sixteenth century, are finally getting around to planting the seeds of maturity.

        “When the children played they always remained in the sphere of their own little group.”

        P.S. Pat Lynch is jelious but rumor has it, he has been sighted building sandcastles in the sky with flight attendants lately.

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