Exactly one month ago today, while traveling on an American Airlines flight from Rio de Janeiro to New York, I witnessed a flight attendant whack a seated passenger in the head, so hard that it knocked askew the baseball cap he was wearing. To make matters even worse, the flight attendant was a white English-speaking woman, and the passenger she struck was a black, Portuguese-speaking man. But worst of all is this: American Airlines and its employees seem to want to cover up this gross violation of procedures, in which the law was also clearly broken. I filed a formal complaint as soon as I landed, but the airline refuses to tell me what, if anything, is being done. Furthermore, a reporter friend who has looked into the case at my request tells me that American Airlines now says that crew members never filed a report on the attack and that Homeland Security also has no record of anything unusual having occurred.
What happened was this: it was shortly after dinner had been served on Flight 974 and plates collected that I heard a disturbance a few rows behind me in economy class. I turned to look just in time to see the flight attendant, holding a transparent plastic bag in which a pillow and a blanket were stored, hit the passenger, who was seated in either row 28 or 29, in the head and scream at him: “I’m not drunk. You can’t smell liquor on my breath.” He stood up, and I could see that he was quite tall, towering over the flight attendant, but to his credit, he retained his composure and did not strike her in retaliation.
But a colleague of the flight attendant immediately came running down the aisle, and dragged her away towards the front of the cabin. As she was being pulled away, she pointed her finger at the Brazilian passenger and shouted: “You’re going to jail!” The passenger, who seemed to be accompanied by two women who I took to be his wife and daughter, simply sat down and neither said nor did anything to further aggravate a situation that was already out of hand. Several dozen people saw what happened, most of them Brazilians, and all of us were shocked and disgusted.
About 15 minutes later, I was in line to use a bathroom at the front of the economy section when I heard a conversation from the galley between the head purser and the offending flight attendant, whose name, I later learned from looking at her identity badge, was Valentina. (She has dark hair and a face whose skin looks stretched, like one of those women who has undergone plastic surgery one too many times) The curtain was closed in order to give the crew members some privacy, but it was easy to hear the interrogation that was going on. At one point, the purser asked Valentina: “Did he touch you or did you touch him?” And Valentina replied: “No. Nobody touched anybody.”
That was clearly a lie, and I decided I was going to say so to the purser. So when I saw her take aside a different Brazilian passenger (who was seated in the general area where the attack occurred) and question him about what happened, I decided to approach her. I said: “She is not telling the truth when she says she did not hit a passenger, and all of us saw it.” The purser asked the Brazilian passenger if that was true, and he confirmed my account. She asked him additional questions, and since he was concerned about his English and had figured out I was bilingual, he asked me to be his interpreter, so I did. He told the purser that Valentina had seemed agitated from the very beginning, had been short-tempered with the passenger and had even pointed a finger in his face because of something he had presumably said or done.
When the purser was done talking to the Brazilian passenger, I said to her: “You have a real problem on your hands here. I don’t know whose law prevails in the air here, but under both American and Brazilian law, one of your employees has committed battery on a passenger, and that’s a criminal offense.” She told me that on an American carrier, American law prevails, to which I responded: “Well, when we land in New York, there is going to be trouble.” I then returned to my seat: the purser later came to ask me if I would mind being included in the report she said she needed to file, I said on the contrary please include me, and that was the end of that for the remainder of the flight.
Truth be told, I wanted to advise the Brazilian passenger who had been hit in the head that he had legal remedies he could pursue once we landed in New York, that he was the victim of a crime. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that: in the national security state in which we now live in this post-9/11 era, flight attendants have extraordinary powers over passengers. They have gone from being service personnel, whose main job is to assure that passengers have a comfortable flight, to de facto law enforcement officers (or so they think) who can send a passenger to jail. I did not want to be accused of “inciting” or “aggravating” the situation, so I decided to wait until we landed in New York and talk to the black Brazilian passenger at the immigration or customs area.
So I waited and waited after we disembarked, but I never saw that Brazilian passenger or his family again, even though I waited a good 20 minutes. Had Valentina made good her threat to send him to jail? Or was he being held by TSA and was going to be sent back to Rio because of some **** and bull story that Valentina or other crew members had concocted? That worried me immensely, because it would a terrible miscarriage of justice. So when I got home, I immediately called American Airlines to lodge a complaint, and just as quickly ran into their bureaucracy: No, I was told after I explained my concerns, you can’t file a complaint over the phone, even if it has to do with a situation that is still developing. You have to go online and file a complaint electronically, and then we will look into and get back to you.
I was disgusted and frustrated, but I did eventually write out a formal complaint, in the limited space available to me online. Within a few minutes, I received what I consider to be a boilerplate response from a customer relations employee who may or may not be a real person (the bottom of the message had a series of numerical codes that seemed to indicate that it had been put together out of a series of stock answer). “I am concerned about the flight attendant behavior you described and hope you will accept my apology,” she wrote. “We work hard to provide professional, courteous service to our customers, and it is clear we fell short when you traveled with us.” But then came the iron hand in the velvet glove:
“While we can certainly understand your desire for specific feedback regarding disciplinary action taken, we've made it a strict policy not to share internal information or documents pertaining to our personnel. Nevertheless, while it is our policy not to share details regarding possible disciplinary actions taken with our employees as a result of customer concerns, we want to assure you that we take these matters very seriously.”
I don’t know about you, but this seems very wrong to me. As a passenger, I need to know that I can travel securely, that I won’t be assaulted by a member of the crew because of something I say or even the way I look. This is the most basic of the rights and protections to which I am entitled, or so one would think. Having that information is also essential to the decisions I make a a consumer: why should I travel on an airline that allows crew members to abuse passengers? If a crew member should go berserk and attack a passenger, I need to know that the wrongdoer will be punished, not protected. But instead of transparency, American offered me only corporate gobbledygook and obfuscation.
At this point, I thought it best to contact a reporter friend, who was, as I expected, interested in the situation. I gave him all of the relevant information, and he talked to American. After some back and forth, here is what he was told: “There is no report of anything from that flight, or any flight in that time frame, days forward and back.” So what happened to the report that the chief purser told me she was going to file? Was it in fact ever filed? If so, did it vanish into the American Airlines bureaucracy? Or is a corporate cover-up underway?
My reporter friend also checked with the Transportation Security Administration and got nowhere there either. TSA acknowledged that there was at least one air marshal on board my flight, but said that no report of any unusual incident had been filed. And since I did not have the name of the Brazilian passenger, for the reasons I’ve explained above, there seems to be nothing more he can do.
So one month after I saw Valentina commit battery on a defenseless passenger, it looks like she is going to get away with her crime, protected by corporate policy. I find that to be offensive and alarming, but I am even more concerned about the larger issues raised by this seemingly small incident. Nearly 14 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers, where are we as a nation and a people? The answer seems obvious to me: we are in a place where, in the name of security and the fight against terrorism, flight attendants have been given quasi-police authority and can, as Valentina’s behavior clearly shows, abuse that authority with impunity.
How often does this happen? There is no way to know, given the opaque policies of American and, presumably, other major carriers. Flight attendants bark at passengers and order them about with a marked absence of courtesy or deference. This is not new in the post-9/11 scenario we have to contend with every time we fly. But for a flight attendant to hit a passenger in the head, shout at him “You’re going to jail!” and then have the incident disappear down an Orwellian memory hole makes me fear that we are entering a new stage in the erosion of our rights as citizens and passengers.
You can be sure that if the situation had been the other way around, if a big, black foreigner had hit a white stewardess in mid-flight, we would have heard about it. Who hasn’t seen the wire-service stories about planes making unanticipated landings and “unruly” or “disobedient” passengers being hauled off board and arrested? This has become commonplace in our new national security state. But the TSA employee(s) on board didn’t see fit to file an incident report, so neither “Homeland Security” nor the Federal Aviation Administration can look into this abuse. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" But I saw the tree fall, and I’m trying to make a sound, in hopes that someone will hear.